Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill: I will be back as a far better manager

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill will be at Ravenhill tonight. And before you ask, no, he's not thinking about switching sports after a testing year in charge of the nation's football team.

He's simply taking up an invite to watch the Ulster Rugby side presumably trounce Zebre in the Pro 12 League.

Ulster of course have become used to experiencing that winning feeling more often than not in recent years. For Northern Ireland it's been the exception rather than the rule.

O'Neill's appointment as Nigel Worthington's successor came two years ago this month.

Since then Northern Ireland have won only once. It was one of the most pleasing in the country's history though, coming at Windsor Park in August against mighty Russia with Martin Paterson's goal earning O'Neill's side a famous 1-0 success over Fabio Capello's men.

On the flip side, 2013 saw Northern Ireland suffer two of their worst defeats ever, in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, on the way to a frustrating fifth place finish in their World Cup qualifying group.

That didn't stop the Irish FA giving O'Neill a new two year deal.

He said: "Had the IFA considered going in another direction in all honesty I wouldn't have had any complaints because the results haven't been good enough. I know that and so do the players."

Despite those results O'Neill insists he would not have done anything differently though he admits too often his side have pressed the self destruct button.

The 44-year-old takes defeats harder than anyone, but the tough times this year could yet be the making of him as an international boss.

"It has been a very challenging year. The experiences I've had can only improve me as a manager," he says.

"A big lesson I've learnt is the need to put points on the board early in a campaign because that builds momentum and confidence. We didn't do that in the World Cup and that will be our aim in the European Championships."

Euro 2016 gives smaller nations like Northern Ireland an increased chance to qualify. With 24 teams in the finals in France, the top two from the nine groups will go through automatically along with the best third placed side leaving the other eight countries in third position to contest two legged play-offs.

"Qualification is a genuine dream. We have to aspire to get there," says O'Neill.

"With a third place finish giving you at least a play-off it is possible for us. I spoke to the players about this and said for example if we looked at our World Cup group, and took Russia and Portugal out of it, surely we would believe that we could finish ahead of Israel, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg and win that little section. Of course the draw will be important but when it is made we should enter the campaign full of hope that we can do something special."

O'Neill is well aware that to 'do something special' he will need to have his top players available on a more regular basis and that means cutting out in his words the 'stupid suspensions' that blighted the World Cup campaign. Another key factor will be to take advantage when in charge of a game, a massive failing for the current Northern Ireland squad.

O'Neill, whose next match will be an away friendly in March, added: "A pleasing aspect for me this year was to see Daniel Lafferty, Shane Ferguson, Lee Hodson and Oliver Norwood come through and have an impact. Craig Cathcart and Jamie Ward also come into that category. They had an influence on the team not just on the squad. It was also nice to see Roy Carroll back. He played all 10 games in the group.

"Going into the Euros essentially we'll have the same players. We have to keep believing in them and get them to believe in themselves to be successful at this level."

As for young talent out there maybe only defender Luke McCullough at Doncaster Rovers will break through into the senior squad for the Euro campaign.

That's a major concern, underlined by the ex-Shamrock Rovers boss.

He states: "We have 90 players aged 16 to 21 in the professional game. Around 30 of them are available to us through eligibility rules and less than five play regularly in the first team at present. In the Irish League this season the percentage of under-21s to have played for the 12 top flight teams is just 2.2%. Those are worrying statistics. If we don't have young players playing in our league and we don't have young players playing professionally across the water, where are our future players coming from?"

Where indeed.

The Ulster rugby team seem to be able to produce fresh talent year in year out. Perhaps Michael could make a few enquiries at Ravenhill tonight.

Questions for Michael

Steven Beacom: With all these sackings in club football, you must be glad to be an international manager right now?

Michael O'Neill: The Premier League is crazy at the moment. Managers aren't given time to develop a team and need results to stay in a job, so that encourages them to spend money and it becomes a vicious circle. After someone is sacked a new manager comes in and inherits the mess, or perceived mess, and wants to spend another £60 million! The Premier League is a merry-go-round and it's become how long you can stay in the job. Managers don't manage the club, they manage the team because they have no time to look at developing the club with all the focus on getting immediate results. After Steve Clarke and Andre Villas-Boas (pictured) leaving their clubs, the attention will now switch to someone else. That's the nature of the game these days.

SB: The draw for the 2016 European Championship qualifying groups will be made in February. Anyone you want to avoid?

MON: No. We'll get two big nations, whether that be England, Italy or whoever. The key for us is who the other three teams in the group will be. It wouldn't bother me if we were drawn against the Republic of Ireland and Martin O'Neill or any of the home nations.

SB: With Uefa's new fixture plan for Euro 2016, Northern Ireland are in line to play at Windsor Park for the first time on a Sunday. Does that bother you?

MON: To me football is a seven day per week game now. I respect the belief of people who think football shouldn't be played on a Sunday, but I don't have any issues with it.

SB: Who will win next year's World Cup?

MON: I think it'll be a South American country, either Brazil or Argentina with Uruguay as the dark horse because of their attacking quality in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Spain or Germany are the two European countries who stand a chance, but it'll be hard for them to win in South America.

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