Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland can kick on despite World Cup heartache, insists Michael O'Neill

By Liam Blackburn

Michael O'Neill is confident Northern Ireland have avoided a World Cup hangover ahead of his team attending two other nations' send-off parties in Central America.

Panama and Costa Rica will each host the Northern Irish this week in their final home games before they participate in this summer's tournament in Russia.

Were it not for referee Ovidiu Hategan awarding Switzerland a penalty at Windsor Park last November - a decision he later conceded was a mistake - O'Neill's side might be back in Belfast now preparing for their own farewell soiree.

Thoughts of that play-off loss might re-emerge during Panama and Costa Rica's farewell celebrations, and when the Swiss face Brazil in their opening World Cup group game next month, yet O'Neill believes his players are not living in the past.

"There's the pain of going out the way we did, but I tend not to dwell on it," the Northern Ireland manager said.

"We have to move on and I think we've done that, the players have done that.

"It probably will not be as easy a World Cup to watch. I've had two goes at a World Cup as a manager and came very close on this occasion - the first occasion we were not close at all in a very difficult group.

"The World Cup's so difficult to qualify for. We may look back in 20 years' time and think that was such a good opportunity for us.

"At this minute in time we're looking to the next tournament and then the World Cup beyond. Those are the immediate tournaments that we believe we've got the capability to qualify for.

"The sense that I get from the mood in the camp for (the) South Korea (game in March) was very, very good. The mood in the camp's been good for this.

"Once the World Cup's done and out of the way, you're starting on a level playing field and looking at the Nations League and moving onto Euro 2020."

O'Neill and the senior figures with him in Central America will know all about the World Cup-induced buzz currently being felt in Panama ahead of their first ever game at the premier international competition.

Two years ago it was Northern Ireland that was gripped by its football team's success prior to Euro 2016 - their first major tournament in three decades.

"The period between qualification and going to a major tournament is the best part because you've something massive to look forward to," explained O'Neill, whose side went to France in 2016 on the back of a 12-game unbeaten run.

"You've got the sense of achievement having qualified, the excitement for everyone of going, the build up.

"That point from November on leading into a tournament is magical and we want to experience that again."

This tour will also give O'Neill a chance to run the rule over the next generation, with uncapped players like Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Gavin Whyte and Shayne Lavery having all impressed with the Under-21s.

"It will be a lot clearer after this where some of the younger boys really are and what we have to do to get them to the next level," O'Neill said.

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