Belfast Telegraph

Inspirational O'Neill is guiding Northern Ireland from depths of despair to the promised land

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill entered the room with a look of dejection on his face. There was disappointment and a touch of disillusionment too.

His opening game as Northern Ireland manager had finished moments before and here he was about to conduct his first post match press conference as boss having just watched his side lose 3-0 to Norway at Windsor Park.

He was not in a happy place.

It was a friendly with no points at stake, but that didn't matter to O'Neill. He had wanted to start with a victory.

Maybe it was the two late goals from Norway that had deflated him.

Up until the 87th minute, Northern Ireland were only trailing 1-0 and in with a chance of nicking a draw.

But as the final whistle approached on February 29, 2012 the home team folded like a cheap suit.

As a subdued O'Neill answered questions, realising the task in front of him, I told him not to feel too down as there would be better times ahead.

Given his demeanour I didn't want to say there would probably be worse moments too thinking this was only a friendly. Wait until the qualifiers - the matches that really count - begin.

The 2014 World Cup campaign proved that.

For the most part, the results were awful for O'Neill's team.

Northern Ireland drew 1-1 at home to Luxembourg. It was the same outcome at Windsor Park against Azerbaijan, and only thanks to an injury time equaliser from David Healy, his 36th and final goal for his country. There was also an ill disciplined 2-0 defeat in Azerbaijan and worst of all a humiliating 3-2 loss to the part-timers of Luxembourg in the Stade Josy Barthel stadium.

That was two years ago. Luxembourg, with a population of 550,000 people had last won a home World Cup qualifier in 1972!

The Michael O'Neill who entered the press room that night was not so much disconsolate and frustrated... more fuming at his team's performance.

In my view it was Northern Ireland's worst result ever. As embarrassing as it gets, being beaten by a team made up essentially of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

Back then O'Neill disputed my opinion over it being the worst loss in the country's history, but at the same time admitted it was an unacceptable outcome.

The fans certainly felt that way, in particular those who had paid hard earned cash to make the trip, and there was a school of thought amongst some that he wasn't up to the job. My own feeling was that he deserved another crack, another campaign, because while there were dark nights in the World Cup qualifiers, there were rays of light too.

For instance like a masterclass in tactics when Northern Ireland drew 1-1 in Portugal on the occasion of Cristiano Ronaldo's 100th cap.

Then there was the 1-0 win over Fabio Capello's Russia at Windsor Park.

At the end of a rollercoaster World Cup qualifying campaign, which had more lows than highs, Northern Ireland finished fifth and a few officials in the IFA were twitchy about keeping O'Neill.

Thankfully wise old head that he is, President Jim Shaw, was insistent that O'Neill had the ability and character to take the team forward.

He was aware that O'Neill was building a strong relationship with his players. Not always the case with Northern Ireland managers.

Then the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign came around. With the expansion in teams qualifying for the finals, even a third place finish in a six team group guaranteed a play-off place. And the draw was kind.

Romania, Hungary, Greece, Finland and the Faroe Islands. Nothing to fear there.

Three games in, Northern Ireland had nine points.

And Michael's expert man management was coming to the fore, with Kyle Lafferty in fabulous form.

Others like Chris Baird, Gareth McAuley and Oliver Norwood were also inspired and, bar a defeat in Romania, Northern Ireland continued to pick up points with the players wanting to win as much for the gaffer as they wanted to win for themselves.

They didn't win last night but fought to the finish and that never say die spirit swept them to a vital point.

O'Neill remains on course to be the first manager to take Northern Ireland to the European Championship finals.

Even that was beyond the legendary Billy Bingham who guided Northern Ireland to World Cups in 1982 and 1986.

This team have come a long, long way. So, too has Michael O'Neill, following that first defeat in charge against Norway and the shocking result in Luxembourg.

O'Neill may still deliver Northern Ireland to the promised land.

What an outstanding effort to date.

What a magnificent manager.

Great work Michael, great work.

Belfast Telegraph