Belfast Telegraph

Comment: How Michael O'Neill and his Northern Ireland team are making us dare to dream once again in Euro 2020 qualifiers

 

Job done: Steven Davis leads the players’ appreciation of the travelling Northern Ireland support
Job done: Steven Davis leads the players’ appreciation of the travelling Northern Ireland support
Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill's reign as Northern Ireland manager has provided the nation with some of its most memorable sporting moments.

The night the team qualified for the Euro 2016 finals at Windsor Park with a 3-1 victory over Greece thanks to goals from Steven Davis and Josh Magennis was unforgettable.

The same goes for that magical day during the tournament itself when the players were crowned the Kings of Lyon after Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn netted in a 2-0 win against Ukraine.

Even in O'Neill's troubled first qualifying campaign as boss there was a fantastic 1-1 draw in Portugal, spoiling Cristiano Ronaldo's 100th international appearance, and a 1-0 success versus Fabio Capello's Russia.

Sure, there have been disappointments too, not least embarrassing defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in 2013 and the heartbreaking loss to Switzerland in the World Cup play-offs, but in the main O'Neill's time in charge has been one to savour.

If the 49-year-old could take the team to the Euro 2020 finals, it would be his finest achievement yet.

When the draw placed Northern Ireland alongside the might of Germany and the Netherlands in the group stages, the odds were long for O'Neill's side to finish in the top two and claim an automatic qualifying spot.

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But then O'Neill has always been a man with a plan. When the fixtures were announced for Group C, the ex-Shamrock Rovers boss set about putting his Euro 2020 vision into action.

Prior to the campaign, he instructed the players in a team meeting that they had to win their opening four games home and away versus Estonia and Belarus to put them top of their table ahead of monumental matches with the Dutch and Germans.

After seeing off Estonia and Belarus in Belfast in March, O'Neill's men moved on to Tallinn on Saturday night.

Many of the squad hadn't played for a month and it showed in a dismal first half which was similar to the nation's last visit to Estonia - a shocking 4-1 defeat in 2011 under Nigel Worthington.

At the break, Northern Ireland trailed 1-0 after conceding sloppily from a free-kick and were fortunate not to be further behind with Estonia having a goal disallowed after a dubious refereeing call.

The visitors got lucky again early in the second half when Estonia smashed the bar through impressive goalscorer Konstantin Vassiljev.

By that stage Conor Washington had already replaced the ineffective Liam Boyce in attack. With Northern Ireland's hopes on the line, O'Neill decided to go for broke. On came Jordan Jones with Josh Magennis quickly joining him from the bench.

O'Neill would admit later that he had too many forwards on the pitch but with a draw useless he opted to gamble and go all in.

It proved to be an outstanding decision. Washington had already caused the Estonian defence concern. Now along with new Rangers winger Jones and the bustling, brilliant Bolton star Magennis, the trio ripped the home defence apart.

Washington was credited with the 77th-minute equaliser by Uefa even though Magennis had the final touch and then moments later big Josh deftly turned in the winner from a tantalising Jones cross.

What a transformation. What a triple substitution from the boss. What a time to be a Northern Ireland fan.

If they beat Belarus tomorrow night, O'Neill will become the first Northern Ireland manager to lead the country to four victories from four at the start of a qualifying campaign. It's a record he would richly deserve.

Group favourites Germany and Holland are still to come later in the year of course, but Northern Ireland's never say die players are giving themselves a shot at causing a sensation and with the inspirational O'Neill at the helm you just know nothing is impossible.

Belfast Telegraph

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