Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland must find the hidden key to winning ways

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland only won one game in the whole of 2013.

Northern Ireland have only won one game out of 15 with Michael O'Neill in charge.

Northern Ireland have only won three games since 2010.

Yet despite that awful recent record, there is hope amongst the fans that the team can qualify for the finals of the 2016 European Championships. We're an optimistic bunch, aren't we?

That's what the luck of the draw does for you.

The players are feeling positive too having been thrown together in the same group as Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands for the Euro campaign.

The mood in the Northern Ireland squad, in Nicosia ahead of tonight's friendly with Cyprus, is upbeat.

Long may that continue. Victory over the Cypriots would help.

I'm no fan of international friendlies. For the most part I believe they are a waste of time. You get too many players withdrawing because they have a runny nose or some other 'serious' medical complaint that they mysteriously recover from and play for their clubs a few days later.

Also, friendly games rarely have the edge that competitive fixtures bring because no points are at stake.

Tonight's match, though, is one that I think actually matters.

As Manchester United showed for many years winning is a habit.

As Manchester United are showing now so is losing.

Northern Ireland have suffered so many losses lately that it has become the norm.

Defeat and disappointment has got into the minds of the team.

What must happen ahead of the Euro campaign is for our players to get into a winning habit.

Cyprus offers up that opportunity. This is a nation that has gone 611 minutes of international football without a goal.

They have a new manager in Pambos Christodoulou so will be out to impress in his first game in charge, but let's be blunt. Northern Ireland should be superior to them with Premier League regulars such as Gareth McAuley (pictured), Chris Brunt, Steven Davis and Alex Bruce in the ranks.

I know O'Neill's men were embarrassed on their travels losing to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in the World Cup qualifiers, but this is a new year, a fresh start and the time for players to put down a marker six months away from a campaign that provides them with a chance of fulfilling their dreams of playing in a major tournament.

The last time that happened for Northern Ireland footballers was back in Mexico 1986.

Many of those in the current squad weren't even born then.

Established internationals like Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans have missed this trip, but a central defensive pairing of McAuley and Bruce has a solid look about it while in midfield Davis, Brunt and Oliver Norwood have the ability to provide service for the likes of Niall McGinn, Kyle Lafferty and Martin Paterson in attack.

O'Neill has players at his disposal who can do damage.

The next friendlies for the manager, against Uruguay and Chile sides building up to the World Cup finals, will be much tougher than this so it's imperative that O'Neill sends his men out searching for victory in Nicosia rather than thinking a draw would be a decent outcome.

There are no points up for grabs, but make no mistake about it success tonight is important for Northern Ireland moving forward.

Following the Euro draw it would also keep this new found feelgood factor alive.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph