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One major final isn't enough, warns Northern Ireland boss O'Neill

Boss urges NI stars to drive further down road to Russia and not settle

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has warned his Northern Ireland players they cannot afford to stand still and live off past glories.

O'Neill's side face New Zealand in a friendly at Windsor Park tonight but the primary objective of the clash is to bolster fitness levels for the crucial World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan in Baku next Saturday.

Northern Ireland earned worldwide praise a year ago when they topped their qualifying group and marched into the last 16 of the Euro 2016 finals in France.

Boss O'Neill is thrilled his boys haven't taken their foot off the gas and they currently have a fighting chance of landing a play-off battle for the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018.

The prize in front of them is a glittering one and potentially an even bigger achievement than their heroics in the last campaign.

Now, former Shamrock Rovers chief O'Neill wants to see his squad flex their muscles even more.

"The players do surprise me to an extent but I still believe there is more in them," said O'Neill, who is still sweating on the fitness of Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart for the Azerbaijan clash.

"I believe we have more Premier League players in our squad than five but they have to get there. I believe that - we need other managers to believe that.

"I just want them not to settle for what they had, that's the key. Don't settle for the fact we went to France and yes, it was a fantastic experience and yes we did well.

"What I remember from France is that we got beat by Wales and that's what will hopefully motivate us to do everything we can to get to Russia."

Five games into the Group C qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland sit second, two points ahead of the Czech Republic and three in front of their next opponents.

It's a case of so far so good but O'Neill knows the wheels could spin off their bandwagon rather quickly.

He is, however, comforted by the legacy of their exploits in France last summer.

"The thing for me is that we have had players missing in this campaign which, if they had been missing in the past, we would not have been able to get the results," said O'Neill, who invited Glenavon starlet Joel Cooper to train with the senior squad at Windsor Park yesterday.

"That is partly because players are stepping up better and also due to the time we spent together in France. You don't get that.

"The teams that qualify for major tournaments, they get 40 to 45 days together every two years and that is a huge amount of time to work with your players.

"We don't get that so the time we spent in France was invaluable to us in terms of where the players are and if you change systems what you do with them tactically but more importantly, how they are as a group.

"They are happy being around each other which is a really positive thing, they enjoy being together as a group and that's the biggest plus for me.

"Being in a major tournament gives you experience of the big games and the hype around it.

"In terms of the inner workings of the team, that time is priceless."

Tonight's match is a big opportunity for players such as Liam Boyce, Shay McCartan and Tom Flanagan to catch O'Neill's eye.

"From a tactical side of things, it's another chance to work on things with the team, and it's a chance to give people opportunities, particularly at this time of the season," added O'Neill.

"It can be soul-destroying to be taken away and not play. I went for 10 days to America under Bryan Hamilton and I didn't get to play.

"I haven't got over that yet! I'm conscious of that. There's a qualifying game. We want to get players on the pitch, get them accustomed to international football.

"Liam (Boyce) has come off a good season, Tom Flanagan is playing much more regularly in the Championship.

"We would love to have 20 (of our players) in the Premier League but that's not going to happen.

"But the lads who are playing, their club careers develop and certainly good performances at international level will help that."

O'Neill will take his team to Turkey to acclimatise next week before heading to Azerbaijan on Thursday.

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