Belfast Telegraph

Let us pray Northern Ireland's best is yet to come

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill has worked a grand total of just 22 days with his players despite being Northern Ireland manager for almost 14 months.


For someone who likes to take a hands on approach to management, on the eve of tonight's World Cup qualifier against Russia, O'Neill revealed that was the most difficult aspect of his job.

Frustrating as it can be, O'Neill outlined his desire to carry on beyond his existing contract which ends after this campaign.

He declared that he wants the Irish FA to give him a new deal taking him through the 2016 European Championship qualifiers, believing the best is still to come from his squad who he feels, in time, could qualify for the finals of a major tournament.

This was O'Neill in more open, relaxed, thought provoking mood than he has been for some time.

Could that be because Russia is a ‘nothing to lose' fixture as few expect him to finally savour his first victory as national team boss?

No matter, it was pleasing to see this side of O'Neill again who in previous press conferences has been a little tetchy and impatient when questions did not meet his approval.

There was an air of confidence surrounding the former Shamrock Rovers boss yesterday at the Culloden Hotel, content in his mind that he and his players had worked well ahead of the World Cup encounter with Fabio Capello's side, who

are top of Group F with 12 points after four wins out of four.

What O'Neill would have given for just one in his eight games in charge to date. He acknowledged that victories ought to have come at home to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, when only 1-1 draws were managed.

In between there was the same scoreline in Portugal which was received much better and a 2-0 defeat in Russia at the start of the campaign giving Northern Ireland three points and fourth position in the table heading into tonight's game with Capello's men and Israel at Windsor on Tuesday.

“The players get frustrated by results but the frustration of the manager is multiplied because at least they can go back to their clubs. I don't,” said O'Neill.

“You sort of just go and hide for a month and then come out again and re-surface.

“You carry results around with you for a long time — like the draws against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, two games we should have won. Having gone through the first four matches in this qualifying campaign I'm a better manager and I'm sure the players are stronger for the experience too.

“The most difficult thing is that I have been in the job over a year and I've only had 22 days to work with the players.

“The challenge for me is to mould a team.

“We'll always be stronger for the sum of our parts rather than individual players and that's what we focus on.

“We have a good group in terms of spirit and harmony and I believe they are capable of winning international games and being competitive.

“Given time we will hopefully get the opportunity to go close to qualification or even qualify for a major tournament.”

When I asked him if he would like that time to take the team forward, he stated: “I have the job to the end of this campaign and I have enjoyed the challenge.

“I think it takes you a six month period to learn the nature of the job and what is expected and certainly going forward if the Association wanted me to continue to the European Championships I would be more than happy to do that.

“The relationship between myself and the players is strong and I'd love the opportunity to continue to develop that but equally if the Association chose to go in a different direction I would accept that and be grateful for the opportunity that I've been given.

“I do think the best is still to come from this group but I would like to see more pressure from the younger players so that our established players are looking over their shoulder thinking their place isn't nailed on and that they need to be at their maximum to keep their place.”

Defiant O'Neill feels that, despite the lack of wins, the team have progressed since he took over from Nigel Worthington in February last year, insisting the football played now is more conducive to the talent available and will bring rewards with victories.

He's targeting two in the next five days suggesting shape, discipline and maximising opportunities will be vital against Russia.

“A draw would be a positive result, but we're going out to win the game,” concluded O'Neill.

If the players match his performance yesterday, they've got a chance.

Kick-off tonight is 7.45pm.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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