Now that the friendlies are finally over, Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill can’t wait to get stuck into the nitty-gritty of competitive international management.
After three games in charge — the first two seeing Norway and Holland strike nine goals between them — a fairly entertaining 3-3 draw with Finland at Windsor Park on Wednesday night brought some cause for optimism ahead of next month’s World Cup qualifying double header away to Fabio Capello’s Russia and at home to Luxembourg.
O’Neill, while enjoying the early stages of his spell in charge, has still found plenty of reason for frustration with friendlies notoriously poorly-attended by players.
There were only a few unavailable on Wednesday — Pat McCourt, Niall McGinn, Ryan McLaughlin and Aaron Hughes — which isn’t too bad considering the timing of the game, so that will have given O’Neill encouragement and the former Shamrock Rovers manager is now looking forward to the opportunity to spend a lengthy period with his panel as they prepare for the real action.
“When it comes to the qualifying campaign the preparation is much more in our favour, as opposed to the friendly games which are shoehorned in between club fixtures and it’s quite difficult to prepare,” O’Neill said.
“We had players coming in as late as Sunday night.
“There is very little preparation time, but obviously coming into the Russia game we will have five days preparation leading into the game and subsequently two or three days preparation before we go back for the Luxembourg game.
“I’ll be looking forward to that, because at that point, there are no club distractions, no club managers concerned about their players and injuries, the focus is all on the fact that it’s a massive game.
“It’s a great place to go and play, in Moscow against a great Russia team, a new manager. It’s fantastic for me as a manager to get that opportunity and it’s fantastic for the players.”
The draw with Finland, in which Shane Ferguson and Martin Paterson scored their first international goals, either side of a Kyle Lafferty strike, saw O’Neill throw down the gauntlet to two goalkeepers.
Lee Camp and the returning Roy Carroll, making his first start in a Northern Ireland shirt since the 3-2 win over Spain in September 2006 — a match in which he played just 12 minutes before coming off injured — got a half each and O’Neill wants the two stoppers to fight it out for the number one shirt.
“Lee has come in on the back of Maik’s retirement and they are big gloves to fill and he’s done very well, there’s no doubt about that,” he added.
“Roy, again, has revitalised his club career — he’s at Olympiacos, a massive club, Champions League football potentially ahead for him. So there’s a lot of competition and that’s what we need within the squad.
“The younger players that step into the squad do that too and I hope to keep unearthing more and more players to do that because what we want is ultimately when we pick a 23-man squad, everyone is champing at the bit to be in it.”
One man who wasn’t involved in the Northern Ireland squad — and he will be keen to make a return — is record goalscorer David Healy (pictured).
Healy was left out of the squad as he’s focused on finding a new challenge after leaving Rangers.
And that challenge could come at Preston where the striker played eight years ago.
Preston boss Graham Westley has confirmed he has spoken to the 33-year-old with a view to bringing him back to North End.
The League One side may well provide Healy with the chance to resurrect his career.
While his Northern Ireland career has suffered a slump, fans know that a fit and firing Healy will score goals.
“It's one that's in the melting pot and I'm having a good think about it,” said Westley. “He's got to a point of his career where he wants to do something about it.
“He knows he's done wrong by the football club, in the sense of the difficulties when he left and his reaction when he scored against the club.
“He wants to give something back to the football club, he feels he's got a lot to give, he feels he can score goals in League One and make a difference.
“He's been brave enough and big enough to come and say what he's said to me, so I think it would be wrong not to think about it.
“He's a very quality asset and he probably can make the difference that he's talking about. It's one that's in the melting pot and I'm having a good think about it.”
Healy, who has spent the last two seasons at Rangers, scored 45 goals in 157 appearances for Preston.
However, his departure in 2004, and his celebrations when scoring against them for Leeds, soured relations between himself and many Preston supporters.