Belfast Telegraph

New Northern Ireland deal, but Michael O'Neill still has much more to prove

By Steven Beacom

The Republic of Ireland are getting Martin and Northern Ireland are keeping Michael. The name O'Neill will dominate the international football landscape on both sides of the border throughout the 2016 European Championship campaign.

While just about everybody who follows the Republic appears excited by the prospect of having the more experienced O'Neill in charge with Roy Keane as his assistant, the same could not be said for Northern Ireland fans relating to Martin's younger namesake who, as expected, has agreed a two year extension to his contract with the Irish FA.

There is support out there for Michael O'Neill, but there is also a fair degree of apathy and dissent to his continuing role as Northern Ireland boss.

That's because the Green and White Army have not had much to cheer under O'Neill, whose record stands at just one win in 14 matches and includes the worst defeat ever suffered in the nation's footballing history.

The humiliating 3-2 loss to the part-timers of Luxembourg in a September World Cup qualifier was a crushing blow, though in terms of O'Neill's future it actually mattered very little.

As the Belfast Telegraph revealed a month earlier, the IFA were already in the process of offering the former Shamrock Rovers boss a new contract with the famous 1-0 victory over Russia in August effectively sealing the deal.

The glory against Fabio Capello's side convinced IFA bigwigs that O'Neill (pictured) was the man to take the country forward.

At the time the vast majority of fans, high on such a magnificent success, would have agreed.

There were more encouraging signs against Portugal a few weeks later when, but for the majestic goalscoring prowess of Cristiano Ronaldo and stupid red cards for Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty, Northern Ireland would have earned a win rather than be left frustrated by a 4-2 defeat.

Then came Luxembourg.

Following that debacle, IFA President Jim Shaw stood by his manager telling this newspaper: "I still see him as the man to take us forward to the European Championships. In Northern Ireland's case one result does not change anything."

Maybe not for the IFA, but suddenly some supporters were feeling a little unsure about O'Neill.

When Northern Ireland's next match brought about another embarrassing outcome – a 2-0 reverse in Azerbaijan – plenty were standing up calling for a change at the top.

Shaw remained loyal, insisting after the blundering in Baku and an underachieving fifth place finish in the World Cup Group F table, that he wanted O'Neill to continue.

And that's what will happen with the former midfielder leading the team into the Euro 2016 qualifiers with an improved deal.

Unlike his predecessor Nigel Worthington, O'Neill has not lost all the fans, but those defeats in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan don't leave him a lot of wriggle room.

He has much to prove and needs a fast start in the Euros. Given that the new Windsor Park won't be completed until 2015 that won't be easy with Northern Ireland beginning their campaign on the road.

Today O'Neill was due in Belfast to announce his squad for next Friday's friendly in Turkey. In February the Euro draw will take place. Football fate suggests Northern Ireland being paired with the Republic. O'Neill v O'Neill would certainly be an intriguing match up.

Belfast Telegraph


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