Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is fearless, ruthless, inspired and 100% right

Fearless manager made all the right moves to earn historic Euro victory

By Steven Beacom

Fearless, ruthless, inspired and 100% right. Michael O'Neill was all of those over the past few days at Euro 2016.

For the biggest match of his life, the 46-year-old made his boldest decisions yet as Northern Ireland manager and every single one came good.

From switching to a 4-3-3 formation to leaving star striker Kyle Lafferty on the bench, the calls all worked.

That's not lucky. That's genius.

O'Neill entered the tournament in France with respect among the football fraternity for successfully steering Northern Ireland through the qualification process.

But the truth is most of them felt his team would enjoy the party before sloping home early.

Thursday's wonderful 2-0 victory over Ukraine in Lyon has started to alter that view and enhance O'Neill's reputation. Right now it's glowing, brighter than the illuminations on the Eiffel Tower.

For Northern Ireland fans their country's appearance in the European Championship finals has been a major talking point for weeks, months even. Suddenly people in this part of the world are starting to join the conversation. That win over Ukraine has put Northern Ireland on the Euro 2016 finals map after a stuttering start against Poland.

The 1-0 loss to the Poles last Sunday in Nice hit the players hard with their long unbeaten run coming to an end, but moreso because they didn't do themselves justice.

You could question if O'Neill did either. For the Group C opener, he opted for a defensive approach. Understandable against a side containing world class marksman Robert Lewandowski, though perhaps he was just a little too cautious.

If Plan A was to stop Bayern Munich superstar Lewandowski it worked, but Poland had other quality players in their side who took a grip of the game from the first minute and did not let go.

The Poles deserved their victory. For O'Neill it was a major disappointment in his nation's first big tournament match in 30 years. The key factor for him was not to get too downhearted and make sure there would be joy rather than pain when the final whistle blew against Ukraine a few days later.

He made tactical and psychological points to the players on the training ground, on occasion in no uncertain terms, and all the while was working on a system that would take the game to the opposition much more and a line-up that would send shockwaves through the Northern Ireland fans. Even more importantly, O'Neill's starting XI caught the Ukrainians cold. They were taken aback by the personnel switches for Thursday. O'Neill had landed a blow, in a game with a knockout feel, even before the teams took to the pitch.

So, what about those changes, FIVE in total from the Poland match - no team had made more at the Euros game to game since Spain in 2008. What was the reasoning and rationale behind them? Well, going to 4-3-3 was always going to take out Shane Ferguson, who O'Neill prefers in a wing-back position. Jonny Evans moved to left-back and had a stormer.

Conor McLaughlin played at right-back for most of the qualifying campaign, so it was a big call to replace him with Aaron Hughes in that role. Hughes is a Northern Ireland legend, but his only matches since March have been international friendlies.

We need not have worried. Hughes, winning his 101st cap, was superb using all his experience to keep the dangerous Ukraine wingers at bay.

Paddy McNair was also a casualty with Chris Baird's omission from holding midfield leading to Corry Evans joining Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood in the middle of the park. The energy of Evans meant that particular decision was spot-on by O'Neill too.

Had he left the changes at that, his team would still would have been considered quite something but to drop Lafferty was his most startling call of all.

Lafferty hit seven goals in qualifying and was viewed as the talisman for the team. Instead he was left on the bench. O'Neill selected Conor Washington up front with Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward causing all sorts of trouble on the flanks.

Again it was a masterstroke with Washington exceptional in a testing role, using his pace and power to never give the Ukrainian defenders a moment's peace.

Mentally they had been tuned in to the thought of tackling Lafferty and here they were been hustled by a completely different animal. After just 11 seconds Ukraine had made their first mistake thanks to the tenacity of Washington and Davis. That set the tone and the batteries didn't run out for a Northern Ireland side that pressed with passion and when in possession passed the ball with greater poise than first time around.

The brilliant Davis was much more in the game, and when he plays well so do Northern Ireland, while defensively Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Evans excelled with Michael McGovern as safe as houses behind them in goal. When McAuley powered a header home from Norwood's fantastic free-kick early in the second period Northern Ireland were on their way to a first-ever victory in the Euro finals.

In the record 12-match undefeated run, at times everything O'Neill touched turned to goals and that was the case in Lyon with substitute Josh Magennis playing a crucial part in the second goal for Niall McGinn, who had also came off the bench. In that moment O'Neill roared his approval and jumped for joy.

His team had delivered. So had he and Northern Ireland were up and running in the tournament and in with a real chance of making the last 16.

Against Ukraine it would have been easy for O'Neill, who enjoyed some family time yesterday, to make a few changes and stick with Lafferty. Nobody would have batted an eyelid.

He preferred to go down a risky road that could have ended up with him being slated despite taking the country to the promised land. He was looking after the team's interests, not his own.

That's the sign of a class manager. They make big decisions in big matches and get them right.

Enjoy him while you can, because others are watching, thinking he might just be able to perform magic for them too. In the meantime look forward to his next trick against world champions Germany in Paris on Tuesday. If there are any rabbits left in the hat, O'Neill will find them.

Belfast Telegraph