Belfast Telegraph

How Michael O'Neill transformed Northern Ireland

The last time Norway visited Windsor Park five years ago Michael O'Neill was beginning a Northern Ireland tenure which would transform the country's fortunes.

A 3-0 loss to the Norwegians in Belfast on leap year day in 2012 did not prove to be an indication of what was to come during O'Neill's reign, which has so far encompassed passage to the Euro 2016 knockout stages, a record 12-match unbeaten streak and a draw in Portugal.

Northern Ireland were 86th in the world rankings when O'Neill arrived, though they would plummet to new depths before their upturn began.

Five games in and he was still waiting for his first victory, with a draw against Luxembourg in September 2012 dropping them to an all-time low of 129th in the world rankings, and O'Neill fearing his team had forgotten how to win.

"There was a bit of anxiety in our play, and that comes from results," he had admitted.

"The only way to change it is to win games and get results and that's going to take a bit of time."

Even with a draw in Portugal on the night Cristiano Ronaldo earned his 100th cap, they would not experience victory until August 2013 when Martin Paterson's goal against Russia earned them the only victory in O'Neill's first 18 games in charge.

Ranked just inside the top 100 in the world prior to their Euro 2016 qualification campaign, O'Neill's men became the first in history to win a European group despite being seeded in the fifth pot.

By the time they punched their ticket to France, Northern Ireland were up to 29th in the world and they would climb higher still to 25th before the tournament began thanks to a 12-game unbeaten run which was longer than any of the teams at the Euros.

Now O'Neill's team currently stand 35th, 46 spots above a Norwegian outfit who will be the opponents for his 45th game in charge.

O'Neill has guided his nation to 13 wins, 14 draws and 17 defeats in that time, with Northern Ireland having scored 45 times and conceded 52.

Shane Ferguson scored the first goal of the O'Neill era in a 3-3 draw with Finland in the summer of 2012 and he is one 16 players to have scored for the current international boss, with Kyle Lafferty's 12 strikes leading the way ahead of Gareth McAuley's seven and Steven Davis' five.

Of the XI who O'Neill first picked against Norway, McAuley, Davis, Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans and Corry Evans are in this squad, and Ferguson would have been too were he not suspended.

And from the starting line-up that O'Neill selected against Russia in his first competitive fixture, only the retired Chris Baird is not in the current squad five years on.

In that way, so little has changed, but as the Norwegians prepare for another encounter in Belfast they know they will meet a team that has since been revolutionised in O'Neill's five years at the helm.

Northern Ireland v Norway talking points

Northern Ireland host Norway in a World Cup qualifier on Sunday hoping to take another significant step on the road to Russia.

Four games into their 10-match campaign, Michael O'Neill's men have taken seven points and lie second behind Germany in the quest to pick up a play-off berth.

Here, Press Association Sport looks at the talking points ahead of the encounter with the Norwegians at Windsor Park.


An improvement, surely? A nation that beat Brazil at the World Cup 19 years ago became the first to concede an away goal in 15 years to San Marino back in October. Four players who started the last game will not in Belfast through injury, suspension or retirement, and the uber-experienced Lars Lagerback has since come in as manager. The presence of a man who has never lost to England, and who led Iceland to that famous victory over them in Euro 2016, will command respect from their hosts this weekend, even if it is hard to know how they will line up. Josh King will surely spearhead Lagerback's attack after scoring eight in his past eight games for Bournemouth.


Predicting O'Neill's Northern Ireland XI - once a straightforward task - now involves a degree of guesswork. There should be at least two changes from the side that defeated Azerbaijan in the last qualifier as Shane Ferguson is suspended and Corry Evans has not played since January, while Craig Cathcart's comeback could see a return to the back three that was so effective at the Euros. Up front Conor Washington is the form striker but has worked best in a two. Will O'Neill consider the big man, little man combo that Washington has thrived in at QPR and pair him with Josh Magennis, himself a fitness doubt?


Strong West Brom, strong Northern Ireland? That is the way it has been at the start of this campaign with Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt all excellent for club and country. The criminally underrated Evans remains one of English football's finest centre-backs and at 37 his defensive colleague McAuley has played every minute for the Baggies, weighing in with more Premier League goals than Riyad Mahrez and Mesut Ozil too. One more international goal will take McAuley beyond George Best. Brunt was inspirational on his Northern Ireland return back in November - making one and scoring another - and his set-piece delivery will be key once more.


Just over a year to the day that he made his international bow, former non-league striker Washington must now be thought of as 'the man'. Kyle Lafferty has at least been used by Norwich recently, though he has not scored in those fleeting cameos and O'Neill will know he has an in-form alternative who has been netting Championship goals in Washington. Hoops boss Ian Holloway has restored his confidence after previous manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink eroded it and O'Neill wants to see the same hungry forward who scored two in his first three international appearances.


Second place in Group C is the best on offer given Germany have all but sewn up the qualifying spot already. Northern Ireland hold the advantage heading into this round of fixtures but only on goal difference over the Azeris, and O'Neill's men are only two and four points ahead of the Czech Republic and Norway respectively. Fixtures at Windsor Park are seen as pivotal to the country's fortunes in this campaign and their most recent competitive loss came against Portugal in 2013. There is a secret points target that O'Neill's side are striving for each round, so will anything less than 10 heading into the summer be seen as a failure?

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