Belfast Telegraph

Michael: We'll enjoy more nights like this

by Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has revealed that he is hungrier than ever to bring more success to the country and has now set his sights on World Cup qualification.

Around 10,000 fans turned up at an official homecoming event organised by the Department of Communities at Belfast's Titanic Quarter last night to welcome O'Neill and his squad back from France, where they reached the knockout stages of the Euro 2016 finals.

A 1-0 loss to Wales in the last 16 ended their thrilling adventure.

O'Neill said: "I am hungrier than ever. It was very difficult in the early days when I was doing the right things but not seeing any fruits for my labour.

"It's nice now when you have nights like this and you qualify for a major tournament.

"That's a much more pleasant experience and I want to continue to develop and progress football here in Northern Ireland."

The 2018 World Cup qualifiers begin in September away to the Czech Republic.

It is likely that Northern Ireland will fight it out with them and Norway for the runners-up and play-off spot behind odds-on favourites Germany. Also in the group are Azerbaijan and San Marino.

“It is very difficult to qualify for a World Cup with the qualification structure but we have to believe we will be at the top end of that group. We will have tough games but we are better prepared than ever,” stated O’Neill.

“We know it is very difficult to finish above Germany in anything but second place would give us the opportunity to go to a play-off and that’s what we hope to do.

“It would always be a more realistic proposition to qualify for the Euros but again if it is a four-year process and we are looking at that whatever happens in the World Cup campaign as we continue to build and move forward.

“Hopefully we will see the emergence of other players like Paddy McNair. We have seen how Stuart Dallas has emerged in the Euro campaign.

“There will be more competition for places and hopefully the legacy of our efforts at Euro 2016 will be that it will inspire youngsters to play for Northern Ireland and we can get some good young players coming through.

“Now we have a group of players who have tournament experience. That will help when we go into the World Cup qualifying campaign.”

On the brilliant homecoming at the Titanic Quarter, where O’Neill was given the bumps on stage by his players, the manager said: “It was great.

“It was lovely to see the reception that the players received. There was a sense of disappointment coming home. I feel we would have liked to have been there a week longer, but the reception from the fans picks your spirits up.

“We will have some regrets about the nature of how we went out of the tournament but what we did as a team, supporters and country was put ourselves back on the map and that is a massive positive for all of us.”

O’Neill also added that he hopes the older players in his squad such as Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes and Roy Carroll do not decide to pull down the curtain on international football.

“Those who are thinking that it is time to call it a day, maybe they will re-think after this reception,” said O’Neill.

“Those players have to go away and think about it and we need to give them time to think.

“They are at the latter stages of their club careers but they have young families.

“They have been away for 39 days and that is a huge commitment on top of what they do with their clubs.

“The Premier League players spend so much time away anyway in terms of being in hotels. I understand what they have to consider.

“They have been great servants for me and great servants for Northern Ireland and we will respect whatever decision they make but hopefully they will stay on.”

Belfast Telegraph