Belfast Telegraph

Penalties? We will be spot on for them, says Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

For more years than they would care to mention the dreaded penalty shoot-out has broken England hearts in major tournaments.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is intent that the same won't happen to his team if spot-kicks come along in the Euro 2016 finals.

Now that Northern Ireland are in the knockout stages in France, there is a chance that they could be involved in their first ever penalty shoot-out.

And as is the case with every other aspect of his management, O'Neill will leave no stone unturned when it comes to striking a ball home from 12 yards after 120 minutes of gruelling football.

A startling statistic is that Northern Ireland have not scored a penalty in a competitive international since David Healy struck in a 2-1 defeat in Iceland in September 2007 in a Euro qualifier.

Nine years on O'Neill may have to decide who his penalty takers would be if a shoot-out comes to pass. He will work on that with team analyst Austin MacPhee.

You would think captain Steven Davis would step up. Oliver Norwood too. Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward perhaps. Kyle Lafferty would no doubt fancy it and there are always a few surprise contenders.

Asked at yesterday's press conference about preparing for penalties, O'Neill replied: "We have to. We have looked at it. Austin does a lot of that. We have looked at the lads who take penalties for their clubs.

"It is something you have to prepare for. We have to be prepared that, whoever we play against, if it goes to 120 minutes we need to be ready for that situation."

O'Neill gave his players Wednesday off after qualifying for the knockout stages the previous night.

Exhausted following Tuesday's 1-0 defeat in Paris to world champions Germany, the Northern Ireland squad, via the internet on their mobile phones, discovered they had reached the last 16 on the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport. Inside a bus ferrying them to their flight back to base near Lyon, there were smiles all round and applause after Turkey defeated the Czech Republic 2-0 to seal Northern Ireland's spot as one of the four best third placed sides from the six groups.

On a rather surreal scenario, O'Neill said: "It was a great feeling. We were keeping our eyes on the game we had heard it was 1-0 then 2-0.

"We were then thinking we didn't want Turkey to run away with the game either. That's how finely balanced the qualification process is.

"We were delighted of course but we were so tired after the match.

"It's a long process. You fly in. You do the session the night before and then you have to get across to the stadium.

"There's media to do and then you are rushed away from the game. I think it only sank in with the players today (Wednesday) what lies ahead and what they have achieved." Not surprisingly O'Neill was inundated with messages from well wishers, including world champion boxer Carl Frampton.

"I also got sent a lovely picture from Willie McFaul, the manager who signed me at Newcastle.

"Him and his family were all in Northern Ireland tops," said O'Neill.

"David McCreery, who I played with at Newcastle, was another I received a message from which was really nice."

The congratulatory texts are a welcome diversion for what O'Neill says it is an intense experience at Euro 2016.

"There's not too much relaxation for managers in the tournament because the turnaround time is so brief.

"We've already watched the Germany game back on the tactical camera. Then we have to start thinking about what lies ahead. Particularly from the tactical side on Tuesday with things we could have done better.

"It's important we use our time wisely. I'm away from the lads a bit to be honest. It's a great base because it's almost as if the players have their own little separate athletes' village.

"It has everything they need in it. We have a beautiful chateau where we eat, downtime for everything and Jimmy Nicholl (assistant manager) can organise competitions for everything.

"I just take myself out of it and try to switch off but it hasn't been easy as this is possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity so I want to make sure that whatever I do I maximise it."

O'Neill and his players have had a roller coaster ride in France to date.

They lost their opening match 1-0 to Poland before hitting back with a superb 2-0 victory over Ukraine. Then came Tuesday's 1-0 defeat to Germany with qualification secured a few hours later.

Reflecting on the brilliance of the Germans, O'Neill said: "They pin you back. Every time you think you have the solution they set you another problem. They overloaded us in the middle of the pitch. You need your goalkeeper to have a big night against the Germans and thankfully Michael McGovern was fantastic.

"They are the best in the world and arguably the best international team in the world. It couldn't have been easy for our players like Steven (Davis) who wants to have the ball but he was putting so much into the game defensively. For us the great thing is that we aren't going home and have at least one more match to play in the tournament.

"The margins are so fine. Look at the euphoria of the Russia team when they scored a last minute equaliser against England and now they are at home.

"We were quietly hopeful and confident that we would make the knockout stages and that proved to be the case."

Belfast Telegraph