Michael O'Neill sees long, hard road ahead for Northern Ireland
This week, in a five-day series, we consider the future of the Northern Ireland international team and assess how our chances of success can be enhanced. Steven Beacom begins with an enlightening interview with Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill is putting the work in. I'd go as far to say in my time reporting on the Northern Ireland international team, he's the most diligent, industrious and conscientious international manager we've had.
The 43-year-old attends more matches, ranging from youth games to Champions League encounters, than his predecessors, speaks on a regular basis with established stars or kids he is hoping to recruit for the cause and he is constantly researching new methods of coaching for the betterment of the team.
The problem is, and Michael admitted this in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph recently, that results have simply NOT been good enough.
O'Neill has been in charge for nine matches, including games against Azerbaijan, Luxembourg and Malta, and has yet to chalk up a victory as boss.
The depressing run for Northern Ireland actually started before his time. It's 13 matches without a win, with Nigel Worthington's last four as manager ending in defeat.
Go back a little further and the statistics are alarming.
In 2011 Northern Ireland won one game out of 10. In 2010 it was one win out of eight. In 2009 it was three victories out of nine and in 2008 one success out of six.
Get the feeling we are on a slippery slope?
There were some unforgettable nights in 2005, 2006 and 2007, mainly under Lawrie Sanchez and Worthington had his moments too, thanks to the brilliance of scoring machine David Healy, but before then there was a stage largely during Sammy McIlroy's reign when Northern Ireland went 15 matches without a victory and a record breaking 1,298 minutes without scoring!
We have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup finals and bar a couple of close shaves haven't looked like doing so.
Of course Northern Ireland is a small country and in 1958, 1982 and 1986, when we qualified for the glamour stages of World Cups, we were punching above our weight.
It's worth pointing out though that Montenegro, in terms of population, is a third the size of Northern Ireland and reached the Euro 2012 play-offs and right now top England's World Cup qualifying group.
There is a fear that we are in the middle of a slump that will be impossible to reverse with Northern Ireland falling further down the Fifa world rankings (presently 119th) and having little chance of producing upsets let alone being competitive in the group stages of a tournament.
In Group F of the 2012 World Cup qualifying campaign, O'Neill's side have picked up just three points from five games.
As boss, the buck stops with O'Neill and on occasions I have been critical of some of his decisions, but not all of the blame should be laid at his door.
He's hindered by fewer Northern Ireland stars performing in England's top league, added to players eligible to him preferring to opt for the Republic of Ireland under Fifa rules.
Other nations around Europe and the world appear to be getting stronger while Northern Ireland football stands still, invariably meaning it goes backwards.
O'Neill says: “There are two things that I look at — how many players we have in the top league in England and our own league here.
“We don't have any professional football in Northern Ireland. It's semi-professional and has not really evolved or changed in the past 50 years and certainly since I first played here 25 years ago.
“Not having a professional league we must export players and we're not exporting enough players. If you were to look at English Premier League clubs at underage level I don't think we would have 10 players between the ages of 16 and 20. That tells you something.”
O'Neill, whose clubs included Newcastle, Wigan, Hibs and Dundee United, adds: “Let's be honest our systems here haven't really changed. A 14-year-old here at a boys club might train once or twice a week yet a 14-year-old who is affiliated to a Premier League, Championship or even an SPL club will train four or five times per week.
“So, if our lads go across the water straight away they have to bridge a gap. It is tougher for them than it has ever been.
“Also when lads in the past went over like myself we were competing against the rest of the UK and the Republic. Now our lads are competing against players from across Europe and further afield.
“Worse, it's getting to the stage where clubs at top level in England don't recruit here, they are looking at France, Spain and elsewhere.
“That's tough therefore we need to try and put something in place that prepares our kids for professional football. Our under-21 and under-19 coaches Stephen Robinson and Stephen Craigan are doing excellent work in that regard but we need more.
“My biggest concern is for the manager who follows me and what resources they will have to work with. Where will he be picking our players from? In the year I took over just 12 players from the whole of Northern Ireland went to England and earned professional contracts.
“In Scotland at the same time there were around 200 players who went professional and they say the Scottish game is in total crisis, so if you take that over three years we'll have 36 players going professional and they would have 600.
“It's so important that we increase that number. It's a huge challenge for us, but you succeed with better coaching and trying to lift the level of professionalism here in Northern Ireland.”