Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016 is just the start for us, insists O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill has spoken of his determination to build structures that can help Northern Ireland to more success long after he has left the manager's job.

Tomorrow, in Paris, for the first time in 30 years Northern Ireland, having qualified for the Euro 2016 finals, will be involved in the group draw for a major tournament.

The Northern Ireland boss does not want the fans to have to wait as long ever again.

And to that end, complimenting his outstanding work with the senior team, O'Neill, working in conjunction with Irish FA Technical Director Jim Magilton, has laid down plans to build a solid base for young players to come through the ranks in years to come.

Already the signs are that they are bearing fruit with Stephen Craigan's Under-19 side qualifying for the elite section of their European Championships.

O'Neill, though, won't be resting on his laurels. He knows there is much work to be done.

"When I first came into the job, I said it was not going to be easy to win games straight away," stated O'Neill, who will attend tomorrow's draw in the French capital.

"As well as improving the senior team and giving them a shot at qualifying for major tournaments, I wanted to leave some sort of structure in place for someone to come in after me.

"There wasn't really anything there for us when I took over. We've slowly built that on a shoestring.

"There's a lot of good people involved, Jim Magilton, Stephen Craigan, Stephen Robinson plus the likes of Declan Devine, Pascal Vaudequin and, recently, Darren Murphy, who works with our centre of excellence squad.

"We want to develop the players in Northern Ireland. Most importantly, we want them to play for Northern Ireland and to continue to develop that bond and unity with young players.

"Recently, our Under-19s qualified for the elite phase of the Euros. Stephen Craigan took a bunch of players to Russia and qualified over Russia, Norway and Slovenia. That was a great achievement and shows the work we are putting in at all levels.

"Slowly but surely I think we're starting to see the emergence of that.

"It's a long-term thing but at least, whatever happens down the line, whoever comes in as manager sees there's a structure there that can point towards an international future.

"It has been fantastic qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals. The last time we qualified for a major finals was the World Cup back in 1986. By putting these structures in place and continually working on them to make them better, the intention is that we won't have to wait another 30 years before qualifying for our next tournament."

In recent years several young and gifted players born and bred in Northern Ireland, some of whom came through the IFA system, have switched allegiance to the Republic of Ireland.

O'Neill said: "What we are doing now is an illustration to young players that we will try in every way to help them progress in their careers, both at club and international level."

Ahead of tomorrow's draw, O'Neill was named Philips Manager of the Year for 2015. He shared the all-Ireland award with Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill.

It is the latest acknowledgement of how well O'Neill did in guiding Northern Ireland to the finals.

He added: "What we had during qualification was consistency. I don't think we have the strongest group of players but what we do have now is a real togetherness in the squad.

"And we had big players who all stepped up during the campaign. You look at the likes of Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis throughout the campaign. Overall, they all did a job. There wasn't a player in my squad who didn't really contribute. That's the biggest thing for me. We've been able to continue to sustain that.

"Maybe in other campaigns it petered away after two or three bad results. In this campaign when we lost our first game away to Romania, when we were weakened through injury, we were four or five players down and we never lost a game in the group after that. I think that's testament to the character of the players and the preparation of the team.

"Also players like Conor McLaughlin, Stuart Dallas and Josh Magennis have come in and adapted very quickly to international football.

"That's made our squad stronger and hopefully between now and the summer one or two more will emerge.

"I know all the players are looking forward to the draw as much as myself and the staff and of course the fans. These are exciting times for us."

Belfast Telegraph