Steven Beacom: O’Neill’s character can shine through for Northern Ireland
Michael O’Neill’s disappointment turned to exasperation. Reflecting on a 3-0 friendly defeat at home to Norway in the post match press conference, it was evident he was frustrated after seeing his team concede two sloppy late goals giving the scoreline a rather unflattering look.
To his credit there were no excuses from the new Northern Ireland boss on Wednesday night, as he outlined the obvious areas of concern — letting in needless goals at one end and not offering up a real scoring threat at the other.
He’s not the first Northern Ireland boss to face those problems and he won’t be the last.
Down, but not out, he came up with positive points to take away from his first game in charge like getting to work with the players for the first time and in particular the match day performances of Shane Ferguson and Dean Shiels, two players he recalled after their mystery international exiles under previous manager Nigel Worthington.
Then came a question that perplexed and irked him all at the same time.
“So, Michael, how did YOU feel about walking out at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland manager?”
To O’Neill that was irrelevant. This wasn’t about him. It was about the team.
The reply with feeling: “People keep asking me this. Listen, I’m very proud to get the chance to manage Northern Ireland. I don’t know how many times I have to say it but I can assure you I am.
“It’s great to be manager but ultimately I came here to win a football match and we lost it 3-0 so right now I’m disappointed.”
There was none of the old crowd pleasing quotes I’ve heard in the past. Nor was there much waving to the fans when he entered the stadium to warm applause nor during the game when the Kop begged for acknowledgement.
O’Neill clearly does not see himself as a cheerleader for the national team — he’s the manager.
And while he didn’t get off to the perfect start, long term that focus, determination and desire for his team to deliver will stand him in good stead.
He took over a side that lost their last four games in the European Championship qualifiers so confidence wasn’t exactly sky high in the squad. That will take a lot of work and time to build.
The problem for O’Neill is that he only has two more dress rehearsals (friendlies) before the show (World Cup qualifying campaign) starts.
The first of those is in Holland on June 2. With the Dutch intent on putting on a show for their fans before setting off to the Euro 2012 finals, Northern Ireland could be involved in a damage limitation exercise.
That will leave the home friendly with Finland in August as crucial to O’Neill before a daunting trip to Russia, with points at stake.
By then you hope that all his big guns are available — crucially Kyle Lafferty, Chris Brunt and Chris Baird.
The shape of the side against Norway offered greater flexibility than in previous games, with Kilmarnock’s Shiels able to find space and young Newcastle star Ferguson combining well with Ryan McGivern down the left.
Ferguson, at 20, offers great hope for the future.
He was replaced by Paddy McCourt, who like David Healy, received a huge ovation, when he came on.
There’s no doubt that McCourt has talent and obviously you would love to have him in your team, but it can be difficult to accommodate the Celtic star. Just ask Neil Lennon who rarely plays Paddy these days.
I suspect McCourt will have to get used to cameo appearances rather than starring roles at international level much like record goalscorer Healy himself, who surprisingly only saw 17 minutes of action.
That in itself showed that O’Neill is his own man and won’t be swayed from his beliefs.
He’ll need that strong character in this job. It wasn’t the start he or we wanted but don’t underestimate O’Neill. There’s better to come from him and his team.
Three issues to address
1.Captain Steven Davis must be in central midfield, not out on the right where he played against Norway. He can influence the game much more in the centre.
2. Three of our best players are centre backs Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans. On Wednesday McAuley was at right-back. What about playing the three of them across the middle of the defence with wing-backs like Shane Ferguson and Chris Baird? With too many goals conceded in recent games, it’s worth a try before the World Cup qualifiers begin.
3. When David Healy was scoring freely, there was no problem in front of goal. Now there is - it’s not just the strikers to blame here. Not enough clear cut chances are being created.
Three reasons to be cheerful
1. Shane Ferguson, Dean Shiels and Ryan McGivern showed against Norway that they have the potential to shine for Northern Ireland. Fine work from the manager Michael O’Neill to start them. It was good for their confidence going forward and the team.
2. The players seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about O’Neill’s fresh ideas and plans. Obviously they want to impress a new boss, but there is a sense, even allowing for the 3-0 defeat in midweek, that the team can progress under him.
3. Kyle Lafferty, Chris Brunt and Chris Baird are to come back into the squad which will obviously make it stronger. All three, when available, can offer much to the manager.