Belfast Telegraph

How O'Neill made our wee country a force to be reckoned with

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By Steven Beacom

Four years ago, Northern Ireland were defeated 3-2 by little Luxembourg in a World Cup qualifier. It was considered the most humiliating loss in the nation's football history.

Michael O'Neill was the manager and most of the players involved in that embarrassing evening remain in his squad to this day. In that 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, Azerbaijan also overcame Northern Ireland as O'Neill's side finished fifth in a six team group.

There was one win - a stunning home victory over Fabio Capello's Russia - yet it convinced few. Under Nigel Worthington there had been too many dark days, but in his successor's first two years in charge some fans and certain Irish FA officials felt even bleaker times lay ahead.

So, just how did the losers that night in Luxembourg become winners at Windsor and just about everywhere else they go?

The transformation has been extraordinary. After Monday's 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic, O'Neill suggested that no team in the world would fancy facing Northern Ireland in Belfast in the play-offs. He was 100% right.

Northern Ireland are a force to be reckoned with, and the manager has been the inspiration behind it.

In that first campaign, quietly he took stock of everything that went on with the international team, be it tactical awareness on the pitch or how players gelled off it.

He worried that he may be sacked but, thankfully, wise counsel from then IFA President Jim Shaw ensured he was given another shot by the powers that be.

O'Neill's results may have been woeful, but behind the scenes his work in that early period was extremely worthwhile.

For too long Northern Ireland players had endured international duty. O'Neill felt he had to make it an enjoyable experience. He wanted his squad turning up ready for action rather than willing the hours away. He spoke to players individually, setting them targets like winning 50 caps, and even helped some of them find new clubs. He would travel the length of the UK to visit them and listen and learn about their lives.

He became their friend, confidante, agent and international boss all in one. They appreciated that.

What had to come next was an improvement in results. Before the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign O'Neill spoke to his squad about their discipline and realising the desire to deliver for their country that had been lost with all those defeats. He also provided staggering detail on the opposition. No stone was left unturned.

Crucially, there was a heart-to-heart with striker Kyle Lafferty. Some saw Lafferty as trouble. O'Neill felt if the Fermanagh man could get his head right, he could be a catalyst for the side.

A few days later, Lafferty scored a last minute winner in Hungary. He grew seven foot tall in that moment. Lafferty and his team-mates continued to rise to the occasion. Victory after victory followed until captain Steven Davis netted twice in a 3-1 success over Greece to take Northern Ireland to Euro 2016 - their first major tournament in 30 years.

Northern Ireland shocked the world again by making the knockout stages. They are reaching for the stars once more in the World Cup and will have a play-off in November to qualify for football's biggest tournament.

Fear and dread has been replaced by excitement and confidence. The players believe they can win every game now. They love playing for Northern Ireland and they love playing for Michael O'Neill, the man who has lifted a nation and given us a truly special sporting story.

Belfast Telegraph

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