Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Stephen Robinson tells the critics to lay off Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland youth team coach Stephen Robinson has backed under-pressure senior manager Michael O'Neill.

While the senior squad have failed to register a victory under the guidance of O'Neill, former Luton Town midfielder Robinson was keen to point out that plenty of work is being done behind the scenes.

Robinson said: "Michael O'Neill has being doing fantastic work at youth level and we're already starting to see the benefits of it.

"I don't think there is any other international manager who has done as much work as Michael has.

"We've now brought 14 players into the Northern Ireland system through family connections, that wouldn't have been found in the past. We've still a way to go but together we are working towards putting systems and structures in place to improve the international set-up. We've got the young players to believe in what Michael and myself are doing and it's already reaping rewards.

"The top English clubs are now happy to send young players away with our squads as they know they will be well looked after."

While Northern Ireland senior side are ranked 97th in the world and are still without a win in their World Cup Qualifying campaign, the youth teams have been performing admirably.

Under the guidance of Robinson the under-17 squad progress through the first stage of their qualifying campaign, beating Wales 4-0, before going out in the second stage, despite recording impressive draws against the Netherlands (2-2) and Italy (0-0).

The under-19's also just missed out on qualification, while earlier this week Conor Marlin's under-16 side won 1-0 in Malta.

Northern Ireland's under-21's were handed a nightmare qualifying group ahead of the 2015 European Championships, with Italy, Serbia, Belgium and Cyprus all in Group 9, but Stephen Robinson is still up beat about the future.

"Our squad will be very young for their age group for this coming qualifying campaign but we've a great group of players born between 1994 and 1996.

"What a country like Northern Ireland needs is a group of great players to come together at the same time and we have a chance of that with this group."

Lisburn-born Robinson, who won seven Northern Ireland caps over a 10 year period, believes it's important that the Irish FA and local government continue to back football financially.

He said: "What we need to do, is to keep investing in young players and in youth football if we are to progress. We are working on a lot of different things at the moment that are all good for the game, but we must continue to support football if we want to improve."

Robinson is currently the manager of both Northern Ireland under-17's and under-19's. He's also taken charge of the under-21's for recent matches, but whether he continues in the post for the Euro 2015 qualifying campaign remains to be seen.

The under-21's next match isn't until May 30, when they travel to Cyprus for their opening game of the qualifying campaign.

Cyprus lost their first game on Monday afternoon, going down 2-0 to the highly rated Belgium thanks to goals from Paul-Jose M'Poku and Max Lestienne.