Belfast Telegraph

Belief, success and competition make us stronger: Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill insists his squad is becoming stronger match by match due to growing belief and increased competition.

O'Neill, the first Northern Ireland boss to guide the country to the European Championship finals, created more history on Monday night at Windsor Park when his side made it 10 games in a row without defeat thanks to a 1-0 home win over Slovenia.

That took O'Neill and his 'Invincibles' past the previous best undefeated spells - nine-match runs under the great Billy Bingham twice in the 1980s.

The Northern Ireland boss feels all the positive results can take his side into the Euro 2016 finals believing they can do some damage.

"Mentally the focus is there all the time, their application is there. I see it now at a greater level than before during my time in charge. That comes with belief and success," said O'Neill.

"It's not all coming from me. The players are spending time with Austin McPhee, who does a lot of our analysis, and the coaching staff. There's a greater collective effort, as opposed to it being the manager all the time. I think that's a healthier thing going into the finals in France.

"I'm also delighted with the competition for places which has increased. Maybe in the past we've been too reliant on too few key players. As our key players grow, equally we'll be stronger for that.

"Already this team has shown that at the big moments we have players who have stepped up and scored vital goals like Kyle (Lafferty) who hit seven hugely important goals in qualification, Josh (Magennis) and Gareth (McAuley).

"Now we have Conor (Washington), who scored the winner against Slovenia. He is a player we believe at key moments can affect games for us.

"In midfield (Paddy) McNair gives competition to (Chris) Baird in the holding role and we have generally been strong in defence in my time as manager.

"In goal we are also well served. It was good for Roy Carroll to play so well and save a penalty against Slovenia because he has been out of the side at Notts County recently.

"In June before the Romania qualifier Roy was unfortunate that he had an illness.

"I had to play Michael (McGovern) and he took his chance. We've stuck by Michael since then but the competition's there, Roy has shown that. He didn't really put a foot wrong."

O'Neill also paid tribute to Peterborough defender Michael Smith, who made his international debut on Monday.

"I thought at the start he looked a wee bit nervous which is understandable, but then settled into the game. He showed he's got the attributes. It was a good debut for him," said O'Neill.

"With the intensity of the game, he was feeling his hamstring towards the end, but it was great for him to come in to a game with this significance and play his part."

Belfast Telegraph