Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

O'Neill aims to use Shamrock Rovers experience to fire Northern Ireland underdogs

Making history with Shamrock Rovers played a big part in helping Michael O’Neill get the Northern Ireland manager’s job.

And now he is planning to use the experience gained during the Dublin club’s memorable Europa League campaign just a year ago to make even more.

If Northern Ireland are to shake up World Cup qualifying Group F they will have to upset the odds in the same way as O’Neill did before being handed the biggest job of his managerial career so far.

O’Neill took Rovers to the group stages of the Europa League — the first time an Irish team had ever played at such a level — after beating Partizan Belgrade on their own pitch, just 12 months after the Dublin club had been knocked out of the same competition by Italian giants Juventus.

Now he’s moved up another level and over the next five weeks he will lead Northern Ireland into battle against first Russia on Friday night and then Portugal as the quest to reach the World Cup finals in Brazil starts in arguably the toughest possible fashion.

Later in the campaign will come trips to Israel, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg, and all will be a test of the manager and his team.

O’Neill, however, loves wearing the underdog tag. And more than that, he loves giving the big boys a run for their money.

Of Rovers, O’Neill said: “We played 16 European games in the space of 14 months, that’s more than a World Cup qualifying or a European Championship campaign. In that we faced opposition from Israel and Russia — as well as England, Denmark and Italy.

“Other than maybe when we played the Estonian champions, who were a good side as well, we were always punching above our weight against the clubs we were competing against.

“We were always the underdogs and it was a major step up from our own domestic league.

“You have to prepare in a different way and that preparation is key to getting results in Europe.”

O’Neill admits that he probably wouldn’t be Northern Ireland manager today had it not been for Rovers’ European exploits, but having sampled life among Europe’s big guns he’s equipped to take on an even bigger challenge.

“The European experience was fantastic for me and it was a very steep learning curve for me as a manager to go in against that level of opposition,” said O’Neill.

“On the majority of occasions we acquitted ourselves very well and even the year before when we played against Juventus. We were narrowly beaten in Italy, only 1-0.

“Before that we won away in Israel, which was a magnificent result.”

O’Neill has tried hard to keep a lid on expectation levels — probably in an attempt to keep the pressure off the players and possibly himself too.

Nobody can fault him for that and the realists among the Northern Ireland support will acknowledge that the task of qualifying for the World Cup is very difficult.

Without his best players being available it will be even tougher, but already O’Neill knows how every one of his predecessors has felt.

The withdrawal of Martin Paterson on Monday was followed yesterday by Shane Ferguson (pictured) and Paddy McCourt pulling out of the squad.

Sammy Clingan, currently without a club, was last night called in to bolster the squad.

Ferguson was given his full international debut by O’Neill in February and he has started all three games under the new boss, capping that by notching his first goal in the 3-3 draw against Finland last month and he was sure to start in Moscow.

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