Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill faced with a make or break 2016 campaign

By Stven Beacom

Michael O'Neill will demand the spirit of South America drives his players on in the 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign.

The Northern Ireland boss yesterday named his squad for the opening match against Hungary in Budapest on Sunday, September 7 – exactly nine years after the famous 1-0 victory over England – and while there were no surprises in the 26-man panel, O'Neill was full of ideas about how his team could prosper in a group that contains Greece, Romania, Finland, the Faroe Islands and the Hungarians.

With more nations (24) qualifying for the Euro finals in France than ever before, a third place finish will guarantee at least a play-off for Northern Ireland.

O'Neill feels it is possible, especially if the atmosphere in the camp is right.

The 45-year-old had that in the pre-World Cup friendlies in Uruguay and Chile. The young team, missing a raft of established stars, narrowly lost both games but the manager was buoyed by what he saw on and off the pitch.

"What we had in South America was a young, vibrant, positive squad and I would like that atmosphere to exist in this campaign," he said.

"The opening game against Hungary is crucial to try and create that. The plan is that the togetherness and what we built with the younger players in the friendlies in Uruguay and Chile will be there again when some of the senior players come back for the qualifiers."

O'Neill has shown faith in Luke McCullough, Ryan McLaughlin and Conor McLaughlin who did him proud in South America. They will be joined at next week's London training camp by experienced performers such as Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty, who missed the summer tour. MK Dons duo Will Grigg and Ben Reeves, outstanding in their club's midweek 4-0 League Cup win over Manchester United, are also included.

Lafferty, after spells in Switzerland and Italy, is back in Britain at Norwich and if focused should be an influential player in this campaign, though O'Neill is adamant the availability of the striker and others must increase.

"We don't need our big players just playing six games, we need them to play eight, nine and 10. We don't need for example Chris Brunt suspended twice in the campaign and we don't need Kyle Lafferty only available for four games. That has to change," said O'Neill, who once again has wisely opted to enforce the rule that if players miss internationals through injury they cannot play for their clubs a few days later.

Also in this campaign the ex-Shamrock Rovers boss insists clean sheets are a must as is making a strong start to build momentum and avoid playing catch up in the group.

He adds: "Our group isn't glamorous, but it is difficult. Greece, Romania and Hungary will all fancy themselves to finish in the top three and we have to aspire to do the same.

"Our good performances have always been against the better nations and in this campaign the only nation ranked beneath us is the Faroe Islands, so hopefully we will get a consistency of performance that gives us a fighting chance.

"Whilst third position is achievable there have not been many Northern Ireland teams who have finished third in a qualifying campaign in the last 20 years, which emphasises how difficult it will be, but we must believe. I feel 15 or 16 points will put us in the mix.

"At times in my spell as manager our level of performance and results have been disappointing. There is no hiding away from that but in this campaign I want to see the team that played against Russia and Portugal at home in the World Cup qualifiers and I want to see it more often."

In October when the Faroe Islands visit Windsor Park only two stands (the North and Kop) will be used with the capacity just 10,000 due to the ongoing refurbishment at the stadium.

O'Neill feels that could work in Northern Ireland's favour.

"Hopefully the surroundings will affect the opposition, changing in Portacabins and with just two stands and the wind blowing," he said.

For veterans like Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and McAuley this will be their last shot at reaching a major championships. It's a make or break campaign for O'Neill as well, after Northern Ireland finished a desperately disappointing fifth in their World Cup group under him.

Before flying to Hungary the squad, which is without suspended Manchester United star Jonny Evans, will be cut to 23.

Meanwhile the Irish FA expect to receive the 1,000 tickets for Northern Ireland fans travelling to Budapest by early next week. They should be ready for collection in Belfast then or, if they choose to, supporters can pick up their tickets in Hungary before the match.

Belfast Telegraph


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