There's no better boss in the world than Michael O'Neill, says former Liverpool forward
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is doing the best managerial job in world football, according to former Liverpool and Celtic star Craig Bellamy.
The straight-talking Welshman was speaking after Northern Ireland took a firm grip on second place in their World Cup qualifying group thanks to Saturday's vital 1-0 victory in Azerbaijan.
A stoppage time strike from Stuart Dallas against Robert Prosinecki's side moved O'Neill's men four points clear of the third placed Czech Republic, who could only draw 1-1 in Norway at the weekend.
It is possible that Northern Ireland will clinch a play-off spot in September if they beat San Marino away from home and draw at Windsor Park versus the Czechs, provided that the Czechs lose a few days before to World champions Germany, who top the table and are set to qualify automatically for next year's finals in Russia.
What has impressed observers and pundits so much in this campaign is how Northern Ireland have built on the success of last year's European Championships, where they reached the knockout stages, when many in the game felt they would be one hit wonders.
Bellamy puts it down to the Michael O'Neill Midas touch.
Never afraid to air his views, the ex-Newcastle striker delivered quite a statement on what the Northern Ireland boss is achieving right now.
"If there is anyone doing a better job in world football I would be surprised," he said, commenting on O'Neill.
"It's an incredible story and it keeps going.
"They have a solid base, they are very good defensively, they keep clean sheets and they give themselves a platform to go on from and they certainly work hard."
Bellamy added that O'Neill inspires players to reach their full potential and used Rangers old boy Kyle Lafferty as an example.
Lafferty, a free agent after leaving Norwich City, has had a difficult time at club level in recent years, but he was Northern Ireland's top scorer in the Euro 2016 qualifiers and is the country's leading marksman in World Cup Group C even though he has not been a regular starter this time around. "Kyle Lafferty struggles with club form but when he puts that Northern Ireland shirt on he looks a completely different player," said Bellamy, who in 78 internationals netted 19 goals, one fewer than Lafferty at that level.
Former England coach Glenn Hoddle questioned what O'Neill could achieve with even better players.
He is not the only person in British football to wonder how O'Neill has not been snapped up for club duty having lost only twice in his last 16 qualifiers, with one of those defeats to Germany.
O'Neill was on the short list for the Celtic job before compatriot and former Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers landed the post in May 2016, while Leicester City, Norwich City and Sunderland have also shown interest.
"He (O'Neill) deserves great credit," stated former Spurs favourite Hoddle.
"No disrespect to the players he has got, but what could he do with better quality players?
"Him and his staff are working exceedingly hard to get the maximum out of his squad and they keep doing it consistently.
"You can do that in one or two group games but to do that over a consistent time takes a lot of hard work.
"They have carried it over from the Euros.
"They don't really care who they are going to play because they really believe they can get a result, whether it is a draw or a win.
"They have the spirit and they are riding the wave.
"They have some good quality and are getting the absolute maximum out of every single player in the team."