Belfast Telegraph

How midas touch Michael has transformed this team

By Steven Beacom

It was on September 10, 2013, that Michael O'Neill's reign as Northern Ireland manager hit its lowest point.

Little Luxembourg, with a population of 500,000 and littered with part-time footballers, defeated Northern Ireland 3-2 in a World Cup qualifier.

To put the loss in context it was Luxembourg's first home win in the competition for 41 years!

It was also the worst result in Northern Ireland's long history.

From that to this ... wow!

Just over two years on O'Neill's team are eagerly anticipating playing in Euro 2016.

It will be the country's first major tournament since 1986 and the first time Northern Ireland have ever played in the European Championship finals.

In total the IFA and the Northern Ireland economy is estimated to benefit to the tune of £20million.

The transformation under O'Neill has been staggering.

In his first campaign as boss, Northern Ireland only won once in 10 group matches and finished a lowly fifth.

This time around they have claimed six victories, with the last fixture to come in Finland tomorrow, and are proudly sitting on top of the Group F table.

So much has changed.

And after Thursday night's magical 3-1 success over Greece to guarantee Euro 2016 qualification, the Northern Ireland team is now transcending the sport.

Everyone is interested in them and keen to know just how did our wee country become so darned good at the beautiful game?

Manager O'Neill is the answer. What he has done for this team has been extraordinary.

And to think at the end of that dismal 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, when over the course of four matches Luxembourg and Azerbaijan could not be beaten, some fans and some IFA officials wanted him out.

Thankfully, IFA president Jim Shaw was right behind O'Neill and the 46-year-old from Ballymena was granted an extension.

As a player for clubs like Newcastle, Dundee United, Hibs and Glentoran, O'Neill was always regarded as intelligent on the pitch, making good use of the ball with a knack for a goal.

He was also a shrewd individual off it, gaining an Open University degree in maths and statistics.

As soon as he was appointed Northern Ireland manager in December 2011, replacing Nigel Worthington, cleverly O'Neill set about building solid relationships with the players. He persuaded the experienced Aaron Hughes out of international retirement and brought goalkeeper Roy Carroll back into the fold.

The results did not alter much from Worthington's failures, but those two decisions were wise moves as was making Steven Davis his captain.

What was even more important was his weekly contact with players, keeping in touch with them on a regular basis by text, phone call or meeting.

Players, who had previously dropped out of the squad if they had a sniffle or cough, were joining up even with injury niggles. O'Neill made them feel loved and wanted and that international football could be a major part of their career rather than a casual add on to their CV.

While the defeats came thick and fast and the slide down the Fifa rankings even quicker in the first couple of years, there was a growing spirit in the camp which was further aided by a summer trip to South America to play Uruguay and Chile.

Northern Ireland lost both games but they gained far more with a togetherness in the ranks.

Approaching the Euro 2016 qualifiers O'Neill felt sure that his side, with a stronger bond than ever, would be a lot harder to beat, but he needed them to win games not draw them if a run at qualification for France was a possibility.

A heart-to-heart with Kyle Lafferty was a defining moment.

Lafferty had been sent off against Portugal at Windsor in a World Cup game, leading O'Neill to label the striker as 'stupid and reckless'.

At that stage many wondered if Lafferty would play for Northern Ireland again.

O'Neill knew he needed the big Fermanagh man firing on all cylinders so before the Euro qualifiers had a long chat with him about his future ... he could continue playing the fool getting nowhere or knuckle down on the pitch and become a national hero.

Lifted by the open and honest chat with his manager, Lafferty chose the right option, scored in the opening qualifier of the campaign to beat Hungary 2-1 in Budapest and hasn't looked back since.

Much like the team itself.

O'Neill continued contacting the players and asked his staff to send DVDs to offer them inspiration for upcoming games and information on future opponents.

As the victories added up and hope turned to belief and expectation that Northern Ireland could qualify, O'Neill refused to rest on his laurels.

He left no stone unturned.

He travelled all over the UK to watch matches involving his players and even took a trip to the Faroe Islands to assess their artificial pitch - result a 3-1 win for Northern Ireland.

It should be noted there was good fortune at the start of the Euro 2016 campaign when the draw was made.

Greece, Romania, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands didn't have anyone quaking in their boots in Northern Ireland and with the top two in the group guaranteed a place in France and the third placed side assured of a play-off, by the law of averages everyone, including our wee country, was going to have a better chance of making it to the big time than has been the case in the past.

It was, however, up to O'Neill and his players to take that chance.

And that is exactly what they have done. There have been some magical moments in the Euro campaign but the best of all came on Thursday night when O'Neill's side defeated Greece 3-1 at Windsor with a superb all-round team display.

When Josh Magennis scored and raced to the touchline, he was followed by his jubilant team-mates. They were all running to hug Michael O'Neill, the man with the midas touch.

It summed up the respect the players have for the boss.

Belfast Telegraph