Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

O'Neill calls on Northern Ireland to salvage pride

Nightmare unfolds: Michael O'Neill feels the pain as his sluggish side slip to a disappointing defeat in Luxembourg

Michael O'Neill didn't pull any punches when giving his players a dressing down after Northern Ireland's horror show in Luxembourg.

And the former Hibernian and Dundee United midfielder continued to lambast his men in public while picking through the wreckage of a woeful 3-2 defeat.

There was no hiding place for the 44-year-old or his demoralised men in the Stade Josy Barthel.

But O'Neill feels the only way is up now for a young side that has just hit rock bottom.

While Luxembourg savour an historic success – they had won just three World Cup qualifiers in their history before this match – Northern Ireland will go back to the drawing board and try to salvage some pride in the remainder of a World Cup qualifying campaign which delivered a few extraordinary highs but also crushing lows.

O'Neill has told his players there is "no alternative" but to improve on their dismal showing.

The away performance was a million miles away from the energetic, disciplined display that brought victory over Russia last month and a step down on the 4-2 defeat by Portugal on Friday, which at least contained several positives.

O'Neill's first campaign in charge of the side is now almost certain to be considered a disappointment, but there is an outside chance of redemption in their closing double header away to Azerbaijan and Israel next month.

"There is no alternative but to have a response, it's as simple as that," he said.

"If we play again like we did against Luxembourg you have to question what is the point of the whole thing.

"We are not just here to fulfil fixtures and if we turn up and play like that it is a total waste of time.

"The players we have are what we have so we will get them back in, look at game in cold light of day and try to see why we were so poor and make sure that is not repeated.

"It's something a group of players can learn from, because this was our poorest performance by some distance in the campaign."

Northern Ireland had appeared to be making progress under O'Neill, coming out of all four tussles with Russia and Portugal with reasons for optimism.

But their inability to replicate that level of performance against the lesser ranked sides in Group F has continued to remain a constant feature.

O'Neill was at a loss to explain the reason for the latest example of that but admitted he knew it was coming almost from kick-off.

"You get a sense of a game in the first five minutes," he said.

"Against Russia and Portugal I knew in the first five that we were going to be ready to play and go the distance, here I knew in that first five that we were down a gear. When you start down the hardest thing is to get back up.

"We talked about making good decisions on the ball, playing sensibly, but there was none of that.

"We didn't see that from word go – the passing was sloppy, we took touches where we shouldn't have and we asked to be pressed.

"The level of preparation that goes in means we expect more of the players that what we got back."

* In a Under-19 friendly international Northern Ireland lost 2-1 in Austria.

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