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Northern Ireland's Euro finals journey made us hungry for more, Michael O'Neill warns

No hangover from France means Northern Ireland in with real chance of World Cup party

B Graham Luney

Published 15/11/2016

Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill during yesterday's training session at Windsor Park
Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill during yesterday's training session at Windsor Park

Michael O'Neill says he's relieved his players haven't shown signs of a Euro hangover after their heroic exploits in the summer. Northern Ireland stunned and silenced the critics by progressing to the Euro 2016 finals in France and even making the last 16.

It was an unforgettable adventure, and even more extraordinary when it's considered that Northern Ireland had finished fifth in their two previous qualifying campaigns, but after winning Group F with 21 points a French fairytale unfolded.

While Michael O'Neill side's continue to flex their muscles in the fight to make the World Cup Finals in Russia 2018, the side that crushed their Euro 2016 dream - Wales - have made a poor start to their campaign and Iceland, who embarrassed England in the summer, have failed to set Group I alight, winning only two of their opening four matches.

In Group C Northern Ireland's comprehensive 4-0 victory at home to Azerbaijan on Friday night catapulted them into second place behind world champions Germany and O'Neill is delighted his players haven't taken their foot off the gas after the fireworks in France.

"That was my biggest concern, when we came together in September," confessed O'Neill ahead of tonight's home friendly against Croatia (7.45pm).

"It's a short period, off the back of the Euros, to come back in and assess what the mindset of the team would be," he said.

"I felt we had a difficult game to begin with (away to the Czech Republic) but I thought their application was fantastic. We've talked a lot about our group of players, a lot of our key players are aged 30 plus, but maybe what that gives us is they don't want this to stop, they want this feeling to last as long as it can.

"When you've played a lot of international football you want it to last as long as possible because they have played through the dark days.

"If you get the good times at the end of your career you remember it a lot more fondly.

"The legacy they will hopefully leave is positives, not just from the Euros, but going forward they genuinely want to go to a World Cup Finals and push for that. I remember playing a friendly against Poland in front of 3,000 people here, tomorrow what we will have is close to a full house, the players have created that mood in Northern Ireland.

"The reaction of people wherever we go is very warm. That's nice and we want to cherish that."

The good times have never seemed so good for the Green and White Army and they're daring to dream again as another qualifying campaign defies the odds.

Friday's 4-0 win over Azerbaijan, following the same handsome victory over San Marino, is the first time Northern Ireland have won 4-0 in consecutive games.

The scrap for a runner-up spot in Group C could go right to the wire, but the way San Marino and Azerbaijan were put to the sword suggests that the players are hungry for more major tournament action.

"The important thing is how we set the team up and what we worked on," said O'Neill reflecting on the win over Azerbaijan. "It was a short week but credit to the players, they don't need a lot of time and preparataion.

"We've had three clean sheets in the campaign which is very positive, then to have the goal threat - scoring eight at home - is fantastic.

"When you work on things, dropping Josh (Magennis) on the right, it's worked for us, while playing Shane (Ferguson) up and Chris (Brunt) back in, it worked for us as well.

"We took a risk with Kyle (Lafferty). We had to make a decision whether to start him or bring him off the bench. Maybe he can give us even more after his goal.

"When those things fall into place it's great. It was a very accomplished performance from the team that has a lot of belief and look forward to the games now and playing in front of home support."

Northern Ireland have been riding a wave of success despite a lack of Premier League players.

"When you have a situation where playing international football enhances your career it is a good thing for a player," O'Neill  said of his squad of chiefly Championship players.

Linfield keeper Roy Carroll has been called into the squad for Michael McGovern, who has returned to Norwich for treatment on an injury. Alan Mannus is likely to start in goal while QPR striker Conor Washington has also been ruled out with a groin injury.

Belfast Telegraph

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