Belfast Telegraph

Be strong and finish the job, Michael

But if O'Neill has lost heart and belief he should walk away

By Steven Beacom

When Northern Ireland lost 3-2 in Luxembourg, it was the players who were castigated, criticised and called all the names of the day.

Fans, Irish FA officials and everyone in the media had a field day, even those who normally wouldn't say boo to a goose.

Manager Michael O'Neill joined in too.

Fair enough. The players were rubbish and deserved to take stick.

What many appeared to forget was that O'Neill was the bloke in charge in Luxembourg.

It seemed I was the only person questioning the manager's role in the worst defeat in our nation's footballing history.

I wrote the following:

"On the back of the loss to Luxembourg the heat is on O'Neill.

"In a savage post match rant, O'Neill labelled his players pathetic, claiming they lacked energy, desire, intensity and leadership.

"But remember he was the man in charge of this dire display, just as Nigel Worthington was for a desperate 1-1 draw with the Faroe Islands.

"That wasn't even a defeat but Worthington never recovered and became a dead man walking with the fans.

"O'Neill has to ensure the same thing does not happen to him. The only way is to secure good results and have no more humiliating defeats."

Fast forward to Friday and what did we get? Another humiliating defeat, losing 2-0 in Azerbaijan, where the second half performance from the visitors was as pitiful as the 90 minutes had been in Luxembourg.

The players have rightly been criticised again but on the back of the desperate Friday night show, as predicted, much of the focus has switched to the manager and his future.

In Saturday's Belfast Telegraph, some angry and frustrated supporters suggested it was time for a change of boss.

To them he has become that 'dead man walking' just like predecessor Worthington.

Others remain behind him but it's clear a split in the Green and White Army has emerged.

Crucially O'Neill has the backing of the players. The IFA's big hitters are behind him too.

Positive contract talks took place a while ago, with the decision reached that O'Neill would be offered a new deal, after a stunning home win in August over Russia, in the belief that progress was being made.

Even after Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, IFA President Jim Shaw has insisted he wants O'Neill to take the team through the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

That brings us to Michael himself, the key figure in dictating who the manager will be for the next two years.

He knows all too well that overall the performances and results since he was appointed have not been good enough.

There have been highs – the victory over Fabio Capello's Russia and a 1-1 draw in Portugal cleverly crafted by the manager's tactics – but the lows have been far greater in number and the last two World Cup qualifiers devastating.

His record reads one win from 13 games.

Northern Ireland have amassed just six points from nine Group F games and currently lie fifth in the table, only ahead of bottom side Luxembourg on goal difference.

Unless O'Neill's side, missing the suspended Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans (pictured), somehow beat Israel in Tel Aviv tomorrow that's where they'll stay.

Fifth doesn't cut it. Fourth was the target with the aim of challenging Israel for third, knowing Russia and Portugal would be the top two.

The big issues now are if O'Neill still has the stomach for the battle and the confidence in his own ability to get a winning team – or at least a competitive one – out on the pitch.

While not a broken man just yet, it wasn't surprising after the Baku nightmare that he did look a beaten man, questioning his own future as boss for the first time having previously stated his desire to continue in the job.

Unless he has a club job lined up or the pressure is becoming too much for him, surely it would be a strange move for him to step away.

If he did depart he'd do so as a failure.

Staying for another campaign offers him an opportunity to put that right.

It would also give him the chance to finish the job he started.

This was never going to be a quick fix. O'Neill knew that when he took the post.

He should hang in there, come out fighting and use the knowledge and experience he has gained in this World Cup qualifying campaign to his and the team's advantage in the future.

If, however, Michael has any doubts at all about doing the job and his heart's not in it any more, he has to do the right thing and tell the IFA he wants out.

And the search for another Northern Ireland manager can begin.

Belfast Telegraph

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