Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill attacks English clubs

Michael O'Neill knows the importance of netting early points in qualifiers
Michael O'Neill knows the importance of netting early points in qualifiers

Michael O'Neill has blasted the disrespectful way English clubs treat young Northern Ireland players when it comes to them being released for international duty.

In an open and honest interview with the Belfast Telegraph reflecting on 2013, O'Neill spoke about the pain of the World Cup defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

But his biggest disappointment of a "challenging" year was the running battle he and his coaches have encountered with clubs who do not want their players to join up with various Northern Ireland squads.

The Northern Ireland boss is clearly frustrated with what is a concerning issue and stated:

  • There is a poor attitude from English clubs towards Northern Ireland.
  • They do not help Northern Ireland – in any shape or form.
  • Pressure is placed on youngsters to stay with their clubs rather than join international squads.

O'Neill and his under-21 and under-19 coaches Stephen Robinson and Stephen Craigan are intent in 2014 on ending this club v country war which is causing the Northern Ireland set up problems it can ill afford.

He said: "The biggest disappointment for me this year as manager of Northern Ireland has been the attitude of the clubs and the English clubs in particular.

"It's not just in relation to the senior international set-up, and is actually more towards younger international players.

"The clubs don't try to help us in any shape or form with the players. That is something we are consistently working at. They make life difficult for us in relation to the availability of younger players in particular."

Asked how clubs made things difficult, O'Neill commented: "They put pressure on the boys saying you don't want to be away because they have an under-21 club game coming up.

"You can't sanction players at that age group so if we as a country are involved in a youth tournament that lasts 10 days our young players will be told 'we don't think it is in your interests to be away from the club for 10 days'.

"It is a very poor attitude from the clubs, to be honest. They have no allegiance to us. English clubs will support their own national team but for Stephen Robinson and Stephen Craigan it's a constant battle and the attitude of some of the clubs has been very disappointing."

O'Neill's results since being appointed boss two years ago could and should have been better, but the Irish FA and fans cannot complain about his diligience or desire to move Northern Ireland football forward.

He has recruited respected coaches like Robinson and Craigan and now has the recently retired striker David Healy working as part of his team. O'Neill was also fundamental to Jim Magilton becoming the IFA's Elite Performance Director, which should benefit Northern Ireland in years to come.

"I'll continue to work away with Jim to develop structures that can help our talented young players progress. That is crucial to Northern Ireland's football future," said O'Neill.

The Northern Ireland boss, now based in Scotland, continues to travel all over the United Kingdom to check out his players, be they established senior squad members or kids coming through the ranks. He said: "Recently I've been to Burnley and Huddersfield to watch games and over Christmas the plan is to take in matches in Scotland where we have quite a few players.

"Billy McKay at Inverness keeps scoring goals for his club and 2014 could be a big year for him with Northern Ireland.

"I believe the strength of our team is in the collective because we don't have a player in the attacking part of the pitch that can win a game for you out of nothing, say like David Healy in the past, but a player like Billy could come to the fore if he could produce his Scottish Premiership form at international level.

"I think there is a big gap but we'll see if Billy can bridge it. Hopefully he can."

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