Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

It could take 25 years to fix Northern Ireland football team

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill after Monday's press conference in Tel Aviv ahead of tonight's 2014 World Cup Qualifier against Israel
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill after Monday's press conference in Tel Aviv ahead of tonight's 2014 World Cup Qualifier against Israel
Life's a beach: Northern Ireland players Chris Brunt and Chris Baird take a walk on the beach in Tel Aviv ahead of tonight's match against Israel

Michael O'Neill and the Irish FA appear to agree that he is still the best man to lead Northern Ireland's recovery, though the manager may need to revise his timetable when contract talks resume this month.

Tonight's clash in Israel is the final match of O'Neill's first qualifying campaign and he has already been given what seems a solid vote of confidence despite disappointment over losses in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

Reflecting on whether the task he had taken when succeeding Nigel Worthington at the helm was ever likely to be completed in the space of a single two-year deal, O'Neill said: "If I look at other countries around the world I would say it's about a 25-year job if I'm honest."

There was a smile and a hint of gallows humour as he spoke and, in the likelihood the IFA do not present him with a quarter-century contract, he will probably have make do with two more years.

It is understood tonight's result in Tel Aviv is not a decisive factor, meaning O'Neill's hunger to fight on is key.

And speaking on the eve of the clash, he gave the impression of a man whose work had only just begun.

Asked if he had the desire to continue, he said: "That has never changed. Never.

"It's been a learning curve for me. I think (Wales manager) Chris Coleman said recently that very few international managers have done the job before.

"Going forward if I was to be in charge of the team I'd be better equipped.

"At the end of the day you either believe in the players or you don't and I believe that given time with this group they will start to get the results their performances have deserved."

O'Neill also gave vent to some of the problems he has identified since starting work last January.

It might make hard reading for fans, but O'Neill sees issues which are deeper and more troubling than a lean night in Luxembourg or a bad time in Baku.

It is to his credit that he has tried to be more than merely a tracksuit manager, trying to raise standards from the bottom up and lay the foundations for a better future.

But the work is hard and some of the findings uncomfortable.

"The job is not just about 10 qualifying matches. I think there are international managers who do it on that basis, but I certainly haven't done it like that. I think people overlook the size of the country we are, the number of players we have to choose from. What people perceive as 'minnows' is sometimes down to a lack of knowledge about international football.

"We've just come from a country like Azerbaijan, which people perceive as a minnow, but when you look at their facilities and the level of invesment in football, you think we need to produce more players; simple as that.

"Looking at players who have come in to the squad in this campaign Shane Ferguson and Danny Lafferty are the only homegrown players – the rest have come through eligibility.

"That's somthing as an association and as a country we need to address pretty dramatically.

"We have to put a structure in place that allows us to develop international teams. I think it's fair to say we don't have that at this minute in time."

The former Shamrock Rovers boss is not the type of man to make lavish promises about the future and is keen to point out there are no quick fixes.

He stresses that whoever sits in the dugout, the playing staff will remain virtually the same going toward Euro 2016, but he is also not averse to a little cautious optimism.

"We have a number of players who are in their first campaign in competitive international football, or the first where they've had any serious involvement, and whoever is in charge going forward will have a more equipped group of players," he said.

"You would hope one or two younger players or one or two through eligibility would come forward as well but in terms of having a pipeline of talent coming through that's not the case at this moment.

"I'm not a cheerleader. I don't manage on that basis so there's no 'message to the fans'.

"The one thing about Northern Ireland fans is they always stick with the team.

"Hopefully they've seen some green shoots through the campaign and can see that this is a team that can develop into one that will give them more big nights like Russia and more chance of qualifying."

Whatever happens tonight in Israel, it is clear that O'Neill has both the hunger for plenty more battles ahead.

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