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Michael O'Neill: New Windsor Park was the secret weapon in Northern Ireland's rise

 

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Here we go: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is thrown in the air by his players as they celebrate clinching qualification

Here we go: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is thrown in the air by his players as they celebrate clinching qualification

Getty Images

Here we go: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is thrown in the air by his players as they celebrate clinching qualification

Michael O'Neill has revealed the secret weapon behind his success with Northern Ireland - the new Windsor Park.

O'Neill, who earlier this week left his role as Northern Ireland boss to focus on his position at Stoke City, has disclosed that in his early days in charge senior stars told him they didn't enjoy playing at the old stadium.

When O'Neill was appointed in December 2011, plans were already afoot to redevelop Windsor Park thanks to £30 million of government money though work on the project didn't start until the middle of 2014.

It was completed in October 2016 with an 18,000 all seater capacity helping to provide an electric atmosphere generated by the Northern Ireland fans for every home game.

Under O'Neill there were some sensational nights at Windsor from his first victory as boss in his 10th game at the helm against Fabio Capello's Russia in 2013 to beating Greece a couple of years later to qualify for the Euro 2016 finals.

O'Neill believes modernising Windsor played an important part in the success he had.

"I remember at the outset one or two senior players coming to me to talk about the pitch at Windsor Park. It was pretty evident they didn't particularly enjoy playing at home in Belfast at the time," said O'Neill.

"That's understandable because for a ground for international football there was very little behind the dug-outs that could be used and there was a portable stand behind the top goal. It was basically pieced together in terms of what was useable. I don't think the situation with the old stadium helped the team or previous managers.

"I remember when Portugal came to play us they didn't have enough room to get their stuff into the dressing room.

"Things like that I used to think would help us but ultimately our mindset changed with the stadium and the team grew and I think that was shown with our performances.

"If you look back there are not many games since the redevelopment of the stadium when the team played poorly and the players didn't play with a tempo and an energy. The atmosphere in the new stadium was always very special.

"We had the mindset every time we took to the pitch, especially at home, that we could win.

"There were some great nights and performances at Windsor Park. Obviously the Greece game was amazing though there was so much riding on that match that I probably didn't get to enjoy it until we had sealed the win."

O'Neill added that even though his first qualifying campaign included embarrassing defeats in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan and home draws versus the same opposition he was lifted by impressive displays against Portugal and Russia.

"I took a lot from the initial campaign. It was heartbreaking at times playing quite well but losing or drawing," said the 50-year-old.

"You'd play well against the bigger nations and you were left scratching your head about why you didn't get to that level in other games and that was a steep learning curve.

"When I look back at Portugal home and away and the home game with Russia, they were memorable.

"I also take great pride in beating Azerbaijan 4-0 (World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign) at home and then a friendly a few days later with Croatia. Jonny Evans went home because his wife was having their second child but he flew back on the Tuesday morning to play in the friendly.

"That wouldn't have happened in the past and when you see that commitment, that's when you knew you were going in the right direction.

"Another big high of course was the whole magnitude of Euro 2016 in France and the occasion. The build-up to games were incredible.

"Even in this (Euro 2020) qualifying campaign when we were two minutes away from getting the result in Holland and a missed penalty away from beating them at home which shows how close we were to automatic qualification.

"I also loved the games against Germany in this campaign and at different times in my reign trying to get something against some of the best players in the world," he said.

"We sometimes had to fight for our lives but other than the last game with Germany (a 6-1 defeat) when we were understrength, no one wiped the floor with us."

Belfast Telegraph