Michael O’Neill was raging. In the away dressing room in the Stade Josy Barthel in Luxembourg, the Northern Ireland manager ripped into his underperforming players.
They had just lost 3-2 to Luxembourg in a World Cup qualifier in the most embarrassing result in the nation’s football history.
This was September 2013. It was Luxembourg’s first home win in the competition for 41 years! They had won more Eurovision song contests than World Cup matches and were made up of part-time players with bankers, students and a gym caretaker in their team.
No one knew it back then but this horror show would prove to be the catalyst for a remarkable transformation in Northern Ireland’s modern day football fortunes.
On Friday, Northern Ireland play in Luxembourg in a friendly for the first time since the humiliation that saw the team go from sorry losers to national heroes.
Making the trip this week are captain Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Niall McGinn and Shane Ferguson who all played in the debacle. Corry Evans and Josh Magennis, who were on the bench nine years ago, will also be on the plane.
The match came a few days after Cristiano Ronaldo had scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Portugal at Windsor Park in a group game that saw Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty sent off and thus suspended for the journey to Luxembourg.
It was O’Neill’s first qualifying campaign as boss following the disappointing reign of Nigel Worthington and, while there had been the highs of drawing in Portugal and beating Fabio Capello’s Russia in Belfast, there were lows too with dreary draws at home to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
The mood of the fans would sink to new depths in the Stade Josy Barthel. Northern Ireland were fortunate to take an early lead through Martin Paterson but, approaching the last 10 minutes, deservedly found themselves behind to goals from Aurelien Joachim and Stefano Bensi. Gareth McAuley equalised on 82 minutes only for Mathias Janisch to grab a late winner, sparking crazy scenes of celebration amongst the Luxembourg players, coaching staff and supporters.
For an angry O’Neill, it was too much to bear.
“Michael was furious and that was understandable,” said captain Davis.
“Some words were said and they will stay in the dressing room. It was a totally unacceptable performance. We let down Michael and the staff, and the fans who came out and gave us such a good backing. It was a game where we looked as if we had never played with each other before.”
O’Neill was scathing in his post-match media briefing after losing to a nation ranked 140th in the world, blasting: “There was a lack of energy, lack of desire to play, lack of intensity and lack of leadership. The management of the game from start to finish was pathetic.
“We got what we deserved. It’s not acceptable. The players are pretty clear on my feelings. As a manager and a group of players, we owe the fans an apology.”
To rub salt into the wound that night, the then Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin warned the Irish FA that they had to get their governance right otherwise the public funding to redevelop Windsor Park would be withdrawn.
Some fans called for O’Neill’s head. Those numbers increased the next month when Northern Ireland lost 2-0 in Azerbaijan but Irish FA President Jim Shaw stood by his man even if O’Neill himself had serious doubts about his position.
“In my first campaign, there was a lot of pain and that Luxembourg game was probably the most painful,” explained O’Neill.
“It was a very challenging time for me. If you look at the record before I came in, I think Northern Ireland had won two games out of 22 so it wasn’t a particularly easy thing to turn around.
“It was a dark time and there were days where you think ‘how do I turn this around?’. I doubted myself after every game because we weren’t winning back then. I remember we played well against Portugal at home and you start to think we’re going in the right direction, then a few days later we lost to Luxembourg.
“If the IFA had asked me to step aside then they would have been well within their rights to do so.
“Equally, there might have been a sense of relief on my part to step aside at that point.”
Honest discussions with senior players followed. O’Neill asked some serious questions and had heart to heart conversations with skipper Davis, a man respected more than anyone by his peers.
“The Luxembourg defeat was a big moment for the players because it gave me an opportunity to really question them. Do you really want to play? What do you want out of this? What do you want from your international career? I think it was a moment for them to reflect on it as well. It was a turning point,” said O’Neill, now Stoke City boss.
“I had conversations with the players and really important talks with Steven (Davis). If the senior players hadn’t wanted me to stay on, I wouldn’t have stayed on.”
O’Neill stuck around and created an unbreakable bond with the players that would take them to the Euro 2016 finals and a first major tournament in 30 years. Davis and the boys reached the knockout stages and became Kings of Lyon and legends in the process.
From also rans, they were contenders, just missing out on the World Cup in 2018 and Euro 2020 with numerous memorable nights at the new redeveloped Windsor Park — yes, the government money was handed over — to savour.
Tomorrow, Northern Ireland fly out to Luxembourg to prepare to face a team vastly improved from 2013.
With Ian Baraclough now the manager and a new international cycle beginning, the hope is just like the last trip to Luxembourg, this one can eventually lead to something special and an appearance in the Euro 2024 finals.
It would be better for the Green and White Army, though, if this time there was a different result.