How we've overhauled Northern Ireland's international mentality, explains Michael O'Neill
Manager Michael O'Neill admits his men have changed Northern Ireland's mentality and that defeat is no longer acceptable within his international group.
O'Neill was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph after Northern Ireland's commendable 0-0 draw with World Cup finalists Panama at the Estadio Rammel Fernandez last night.
Northern Ireland, he insists, would usually turn up at these end of season friendlies and defeat didn't seem to concern them.
But now, O'Neill says times have changed and having developed a winning formula, his players hate to lose – even end of season friendlies with a makeshift squad.
O'Neill, due to around 10 absentees, was forced to select a makeshift team which included Jonny Evans in midfield alongside brother Corry and Paddy McNair while Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart made up a back three, Stuart Dallas and Shane Ferguson operated in the wing back positions and Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis were up front.
But even though they had a scare with Edgar Yoel Barcenas hitting the bar and Hughes having to clear off the line from Adolfo Machado, O'Neill believes his players stood up to the Panama challenge and didn't allow the hosts to dictate their gameplan. He was even able to throw on four young players – three made their international debuts, Bailey Peacock Farrell, Jordan Thompson and Shayne Lavery – and Paul Smyth was given the chance to earn his second cap.
McNair was consistently rampaging into the Panama half, Boyce looked a threat while McAuley was dangerous from Magennis' long throws.
O'Neill states: “McNair was immense – he really was fabulous – while McAuley, Cathcart...good to have Craig back playing. There were no negatives for us at all.
“We possibly would have liked to create a bit more in the game, our final ball could have been a bit better at times, however the conditions we were playing in were incredible for the players to have to ome at this stage of their season, with the level of preparation we've had.”
But O'Neill, who will lead Northern Ireland on a charter flight to Costa Rica this evening, says: “You can't ask for anymore – their heart, their desire. Years ago Northern Ireland used to come to places like this, lose the game and it didn't really matter.
“It matters to the players now, they don't want to be beaten. We've come off the disappointment of not going to the World Cup. We beat South Korea and made sure we weren't beaten against Panama. We ended up with four Under-21 players on the pitch – there are a huge amount of plus points.”
Northern Ireland were playing Panama on the back drop of a huge farewell party. With so much razzmatazz surrounding the match, the game was actually delayed by 10 mintues. However O'Neill loved all the fireworks, banners, streamers and the marching band. There was also a concert taking place behind the goals to add to the fever pitch atmosphere.
O'Neill says: “It was great, you can see what it means to these people to go to the tournament. The whole country's obviously very excited by what lies ahead.
“It was a good atmosphere for us to come and play in. The pitch wasn't the greatest but the players dealt with it well. To come here after two training sessions, long flight, long travel, to play how we did and to come out and make sure we weren't beaten is very commendable.”
“Panama will face England in their second group match in Russia next month after facing might Belgium in their opening game on June 18
“The English match, with all the Premier League stars in Gareth Southgate's side is the huge glamour game for the Panamanians and they are dreaming of causing their greatest upset in World Cup history.”
Panama fans are hoping for the best but boss O'Neill believes that optimism should be tempered and that England will be too strong for them.
“There's always a chance in tournament football,” admits O'Neill.
“I'll be honest, I would be surprised if England and Belgium don't beat them. In saying that, tournament football is different.
“If someone gets off to a bad start, someone gets off to a good start, that second game can always be very, very interesting. You get momentum, you get confidence. They go and play Norway now. They've had a few difficult games in Europe so they've tried to change how they play when they play European teams.
“We'll see how it goes but it's going to be a tough ask for them to do anything in terms of coming through the first phase of the tournament. They have a great pride in playing for their country.
“We've come off the disappointment of not going to the World Cup. We beat South Korea and made sure we weren't get beaten. We ended up with four Under-21 players on the pitch – there are a huge amount of plus points,” stresses O'Neill.
Belfast Telegraph Digital