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Northern Ireland's Michael O'Neill not getting credit he's due: Martin Keown

By Graham Luney

Martin Keown feels it's "unfair" Michael O'Neill is not being considered for club jobs in England and Scotland and he's backed Northern Ireland to show their mettle when the battle for a play-off spot en route to the World Cup Finals in Russia hots up.

Northern Ireland lie second in qualifying Group C, level on points with Azerbaijan and two clear of Czech Republic with Norway up next at Windsor Park on Sunday, March 26.

Former Arsenal favourite and England ace Keown has been impressed by O'Neill's miracle work on the international stage, including the fairytale Euro 2016 adventure which ended at the last 16 stage in France.

The 50-year-old could have turned out for Northern Ireland in the late 1980s as his father is from Kesh in Fermanagh but he remained loyal to the country of his birth and won 43 England caps.

"We were regular visitors to Ireland, north and south, in my younger days on my holidays," said Keown, who played more than 400 games for the Gunners.

"My late father Raymond was from Kesh and we used to play football every summer around the cow pats. Around that time Northern Ireland had players like Norman Whiteside and a very good side.

"With my parents coming from the south and north of Ireland I had options there but the family came to England to find work. My father believed it was right I should play for the country where I was born.

"If I was just brought up within an Irish community things might have been different. But Michael (O'Neill) and the players have really transformed Northern Ireland's reputation.

"They are a well organised, solid unit and Michael has demonstrated his good understanding of players and how to get them to gel."

He added: "They must have taken a lot of confidence from the Euro 2016 campaign and I think that experience of competing in those big games will be important should they come close to qualifying for the World Cup.

"They have given themselves a fighting chance and in a play-off game you would back them to pass the test.

"There's been a long gap between the games but while you'd expect Germany to run away with the group; Azerbaijan, even though they have been a surprise team, don't leap out at you as a major power.

"It is a bit surprising and unfair that Michael isn't talked about more when club jobs come up. He doesn't really get the credit he deserves and I can only assume his work with Shamrock Rovers hasn't captured the imagination of clubs that see themselves competing at a higher level.

"But he's done a fantastic job with Northern Ireland and he should carry on his good work there. A World Cup appearance would be a big statement again from Michael and the team."

Keown was speaking at the launch of the 2017 McDonald's Irish FA Community Awards.

The awards programme is in its seventh year and honours grassroots clubs and the volunteers who give up countless hours to ensure that football takes place every week throughout Northern Ireland.

The awards have six categories including the Respect Award, Volunteer of the Year, Coach of the Year and the coveted People's Award which celebrates an individual's outstanding contribution to grassroots football.

"People do amazing things over a long period of time for the club they love," said Keown.

• Northern Ireland will take on New Zealand in a friendly encounter at Windsor Park on June 2.

The game will be used as preparation for a 2018 World Cup qualifier away against Azerbaijan eight days later.

Boss Michael O'Neill said: "I wanted a home game following our first two camps and it will come at a good time for us.

"It's not too close to the Azerbaijan game and it will help to keep the players sharp.

"The players will need a game at that time as some of their seasons will have finished as early as the end of April.

"We will use it sensibly and get as many of the squad on the pitch as possible."

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