Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Why this time we'll keep the faith in Michael O'Neill

All smiles: Michael O'Neill has a new two year deal but he knows results will have to improve

Talked to an old friend the other day about the Northern Ireland team. He's as patriotic as anyone you could ever meet.

Ironically he's become even more attached to our wee country since he left it to make his life in London.

He's one of those fans who are willing to give managers a chance. Down the years he's had a few things to say to me when I've declared in this newspaper that various Northern Ireland bosses had to go.

In particular he was aggrieved when I wrote that the time was up for his hero Sammy McIlroy.

Truth be told, I still feel kind of bad about that one myself, even though it was the right call to make at the time because our record breaking scoreless run was demoralising the players and having a negative impact on Sammy himself.

All the same it was difficult to type in the words that a change was needed, because this was Sammy Mac, our 1982 and 1986 World Cup hero and a good guy besides. Sammy left to become manager at Stockport.

I've no regrets about writing that Lawrie McMenemy and Nigel Worthington had to exit because all hope had gone from under them.

The latter took serious abuse from the fans, but to his credit never lashed out at them in a dignified exit.

Anyway to the current manager Michael O'Neill and my mate in London, who follows the team religiously and is forever on the internet checking for news and views. He regularly reads what I'm saying on the Belfast Telegraph website.

He asked me earlier this week why I hadn't demanded Michael's head on an Irish FA platter, adding that after the humiliating defeats in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan he felt sure I would, to put it in his words "stick the knife in".

Well, I did have a right pop at the manager and players for their pitiful and embarrassing efforts in both games and called the Luxembourg loss the worst in our history, a point which Michael questioned.

Some supporters wanted him out. I did not, however, say he should walk or be sacked.

Reason? Well, anyone, even Billy Bingham in his pomp, would need more than two years to put his stamp on the current Northern Ireland set-up. Results have been largely dreadful, but O'Neill has being doing diligent and useful work behind the scenes, so I wasn't displeased that the IFA extended his contract, though he is under severe pressure to deliver from here on in.

He has recruited Stephen Robinson, Stephen Craigan, Maik Taylor, Kevin Horlock and the King himself David Healy to work with our various squads from youth to senior level and was a key figure in bringing Jim Magilton on board as the IFA's Elite Performance Director.

All good men with something to offer our wee country. The players can learn from them and all of the above have Northern Ireland's best interests at heart, which I fear was not always the case with previous coaches.

Tonight in Turkey in a friendly Michael O'Neill takes charge for the first time with that new deal in his pocket.

A win's not a necessity, but a fighting performance to set us up for a big 2014 would be welcome.

Fresh start...let's get behind the boss and the boys.

Just like my mate would say Come on Northern Ireland!

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