18 points for Michael O'Neill is the key to Euro door
From road to nowhere, France beckons
Twelve months ago many Northern Ireland supporters were worried.
Michael O’Neill had just agreed a new two-year contract to stay on as manager and there were fears among the fans that the national team was on the road to nowhere.
Although content to see the Irish FA keep faith with O’Neill, I could understand the frustration and scepticism wafting around the Green and White Army. After all, thousands of them still had painful memories of the dismal World Cup qualifying campaign.
There were the disheartening 1-1 draws at Windsor Park early in the campaign against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan which killed off any hopes of mounting a meaningful challenge to qualify for Brazil.
A home victory over Fabio Capello’s Russians — the first win during O’Neill’s reign at his 10th attempt — suggested an upturn in fortunes only for Northern Ireland to be humiliated in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. The 2-0 loss in Baku was a shocker, but being defeated by a bunch of part-timers from Luxembourg was just about as humiliating as it gets.
Luxembourg won 3-2 — their first success in a World Cup qualifier on home turf since 1972 — and they didn’t even get lucky. The butchers, bakers and candlestick makers deserved their victory and were actually unfortunate not to have won by a few more.
Northern Ireland were disjointed, disorganised and a disgrace to the shirt. O’Neill admitted the performance was unacceptable, though he disagreed with my assertion — and probably still does — that it was the worst result in Northern Ireland’s football history.
Some of the 1200 away fans, who had spent hard earned cash on the trip, were so angry and upset that they wanted O’Neill out there and then.
A few days later in this newspaper Irish FA President Jim Shaw insisted that he would like O’Neill to stay. Others in the IFA weren’t so sure, but a year ago this month the manager agreed an extension to his existing deal.
And so started a process that now has fans forgetting that road to nowhere and dreaming of booking flights to France in 2016. The transformation has been staggering with a sensational and history making start to the Euro qualifiers.
To a degree we have Uefa to thank. The decision from Michel Platini and co to increase the number of nations in the European Championship finals from 16 to 24 offered smaller countries greater opportunities to make the big show. Finishing third in your group suddenly became good enough to earn a play-off, with the top two qualifying automatically. That provided hope.
The draw pitting Northern Ireland against Greece, Romania, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands offered more.
Hardly glamour ties, but nothing to be scared of there, the players were thinking.
There was also a summer tour to South America where morale was boosted by promising displays against Uruguay and Chile and a guarantee from the troubled Kyle Lafferty to O’Neill that he wouldn’t let the team down as he had done in the past.
From feeling rock bottom after a qualifying series that only brought seven points out of a possible 30, things started to look up again approaching the first Euro game in Hungary.
Northern Ireland played with confidence, desire and skill in Budapest. Even when they went behind in the second half, there was a sense they could roar back. That’s exactly what happened with supersub Niall McGinn and Lafferty scoring to secure a 2-1 victory.
Two wins later against the Faroe Islands and Greece — becoming the first Northern Ireland side to triumph in their opening three qualifying fixtures — with the rejuvenated Lafferty netting in both and O’Neill’s men were sitting pretty on top of the group.
In Athens, the Northern Ireland fans chanted the name of the boss in glowing terms and will no doubt do the same in Romania tomorrow night, win, lose or draw.
O’Neill hasn’t become the Messiah just yet, but supporters are now convinced he is the right man for the job and capable of guiding Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals. He still insists that a top three finish is his target.
Forget that... top two should be the aim now. Nine points are on the board already. With the way the group is shaping up and the fixtures to come, another nine will be enough for Northern Ireland to claim runners-up spot — the key to the Euro finals door will come when we hit 18.
Even if there is a setback in Bucharest tomorrow our boys will still be in a strong place with four home matches and visits to the Faroes and Finland remaining to reach the magic number.
Northern Ireland’s time has come. So too Michael O’Neill’s.
Belfast Telegraph Digital