Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss O'Neill is all fired up to take on the World

NI boss eager to write next glorious chapter after France heroics

By Laure James

Michael O'Neill has revealed that he is still excited about being at the helm of Northern Ireland and is spurred on by the success of his side's Euro 2016 campaign.

The manager has assembled his squad at a training camp in Austria, where O'Neill will be working to bed in new recruits such as Matthew Lund and Michael Duffy and preparing his men for their opening World Cup qualifier against Czech Republic on Sunday.

The Czechs won 3-0 in a friendly with Armenia last night, which O'Neill and his backroom staff kept tabs on.

O'Neill has always been the man with a plan, and he's starting to combine his scientific approach to analysis with the team's soaring self-belief.

"It is very exciting now, and the Euros were fantastic for us. I do feel disappointed about how we went out after analysing the game against Wales, but it was great for the players, and all of us," he said.

"We have to find somewhere in the region of five to eight points, if we can beat the two bottom teams home and away.

"Then we could see people drop points against Azerbaijan, including us. That won't be an easy game, particularly out there on June 10.

"That is probably the most difficult game you could get at that time of the year to be honest, but it's an exciting time for the team.

"We're going to give it a right go, as we tried in the Euros.

"I always think those first four games are important because from November to March, you don't play, so if you're in a good position in the group it's positive.

"The media then would be writing positive stuff about it from November to March, which helps keep spirits high. So that's what we have to do to put ourselves in a positive position.

"We have to develop the squad and that's very difficult because we are not waiting for 10 players to come into the squad, they just aren't there.

"The ones we've brought in you probably wouldn't have been able to name them so it's not as if there are people beating the door down to be in it.

"We have to add to it very, very slowly, and hope those players integrate into the squad the same way Stuart Dallas, Conor Washington and Josh Magennis did. I'm excited about the challenge, I think it will be very difficult."

O'Neill is targeting a second-place finish in the group, rather than pipping reigning World champions Germany to top spot.

Then again, he's deploying the same methods as he did for the last qualifying campaign, and his small steps approach is a proven success.

"We talk about the group within the group. If you look at the second-placed teams in the previous World Cup qualifying campaign, the points held by the teams which finished second ranged from 17 to 25.

"They are the sorts of things I'll bring to the players. If you beat the Pot Five and Six teams home and away, you've got 12 points. That's the significance of winning the two home games. That's the plan.

"We have to hope that, if the opportunity comes again, we are better equipped as an attacking threat, that was the thing I took from the Euros.

"I thought performance-wise, the shape of the team and the defensive structure were phenomenal.

"I thought when we brought players into the second game they energised the team, and I thought we learned that sometimes you see teams qualify, but the team they bring to the final is almost not the team that played in the qualifiers.

"We didn't have that luxury, we didn't have that number of players to change.

"We did have players in the tournament, Chris Baird, who hadn't had a lot of club football, which you maybe saw in the finals a little bit as well. I think that's what I learned, but I think we did as well as we could have.

"We got our preparation right, the base was fantastic, I don't think there's much I would have changed in our preparation at all.

"There are no players I feel 'oh, I should have brought him', I think we picked the right squad, and hopefully it gives us the momentum and ability to kick on in what will be a massive group ahead and hopefully finish in the top two spots as well."

O'Neill has already had to reshuffle his pack to account for Craig Cathcart's groin strain.

He called up Shrewsbury's Ryan McGivern, and the uncapped duo of Rochdale midfielder Matthew Lund and Aberdeen defender Callum Morris, and may now be forced to use Paddy McNair as a centre-back.

Meanwhile, former Arsenal star and Czech Republic captain Tomas Rosicky has returned to Sparta Prague on a two-year contract, 15 years after leaving.

It is not clear, however, whether he plans to continue with his country, but rumours suggest retirement is imminent.

Belfast Telegraph

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