Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland haven't brought George Best's brilliance but team effort can upset the Netherlands, insists Michael O'Neill

 

Out in front: Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis (left) and Stuart Dallas lead the squad out at training in Rotterdam last night
Out in front: Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis (left) and Stuart Dallas lead the squad out at training in Rotterdam last night
Michael O'Neill

By Paul Ferguson

It may have been 43 years since Belfast's favourite son performed in Rotterdam, but the legend of George Best certainly lives on in the Netherlands.

Those lucky enough to have been around in October 1976 to watch Best embarrass the Dutch greats continue to marvel at his brilliance while younger generations have heard all about his mesmerising skills.

At last night's final press conference ahead of the crucial Euro 2020 qualifier between the Netherlands and Northern Ireland at the De Kuip stadium this evening, the name Best was once again mentioned in dispatches.

O'Neill was asked by an experienced Dutch journalist why the great Best is still the only footballer from Northern Ireland known by football fans in the Netherlands?

The Northern Ireland manager gave a wry smile, ready to respect Best's legacy but keen to stress how he and his players have upset all the odds over the last couple of years by qualifying for Euro 2016, nearly reaching the World Cup finals last year and now still in contention with the Netherlands and Germany for automatic qualification for Euro 2020.

Northern Ireland may not have a player with the exceptional talent of Best but they have achieved so much as a collective unit with players from League One, the Championship and Scottish Premiership raising their game considerably.

And tonight, O'Neill is hoping his team can once again spring a surprise and cause a major upset against the Netherlands' galaxy of stars.

"We don't have a player unfortunately of George's calibre in the squad, sorry to let you know that Steven (Davis)," said O'Neill as he playfully apologised to his captain sitting beside him.

"But we have some very good young players, they are not at that level, we only have three players who play in the Premier League and one of them is not with us but we have a well prepared and organised team.

"We have a squad of 30 to choose from, so resource wise we don't have the same as the Netherlands and Germany, but we have proven ourselves to compete at this level, and this is right at the top of the European game, arguably the world game.

"In terms of international football, that is the challenge that lies ahead. For us it's about trying individually and collectively to get to the level of the opposition and I think we have belief that we can do that."

Northern Ireland have produced sensational results down the years but if O'Neill and his players were able to upset the Netherlands on their home patch it would go down as one of the greatest results in Irish FA history and rank with anything Best achieved in a green shirt.

Four points is the target in the next two games against the Netherlands in Rotterdam and Belfast as it would secure automatic qualification - without having to worry about gaining a positive result in the final game against Germany.

However, this Dutch team are on an upward curve, have some of the finest players in the world and rarely drop points at De Kuip stadium.

O'Neill says: "We're under no illusions how difficult the game will be. We're in a situation, where having spoken to the players, we're essentially in a play-off situation with Holland already.

"We need to get four points out of that. They have a stronger position in that play-off because they got three points off Germany. That's how we have to approach this game and the one in Belfast.

"That's the job that is in front us, it is not an easy task by any means but we know to give ourselves a chance of automatic qualification we have to take something from the game.

"If we go back through the years, Northern Ireland have produced big results in the past. Some of them have been involved - Jonny (Evans) and Steven (Davis) played in the win over Spain.

"They played against England and won. It's not a case we don't have the experience of doing that.

"There will be times in the game where we will have to defend and we don't anticipate coming here and having dominance in possession, that would be unrealistic.

"But we've found a way to get results away from home and that's what will be required again. Whether that's from a counter-attack, a set-piece or from possession, we're not bothered, we'll take it any way it comes."

O'Neill over the years has used different motivating tactics to get his team ready for the heat of battle. He'll not be taking a trip down memory lane to remind them of Best's influence in the 2-2 draw when Northern Ireland played Johan Cruyff and co at De Kuip stadium.

The Ballymena man insists the carrot of reaching their second successive Euro finals is all the players need to get them fired up for such a huge game.

"The players don't need any motivation for this game - they just need to find four points to make the next tournament," states O'Neill.

"That's the only motivation they need. We can maybe reference (2-2 in 1976) that and my assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl played in that game and was a young man.

"Maybe he'll have a few words with the players individually before that.

"But the important thing is for us to go and enjoy the experience of playing here.

"It's a wonderful stadium here, a great crowd, the Dutch fans are always fantastic. We want to come here, make our mark and show what a good team we are."

Best produced a performance for the ages 43 years ago, if O'Neill's current crop of Northern Ireland heroes are able to stun the locals tonight, then you can be guaranteed the Dutch will not be forgetting them in a hurry.

Predicted teams

Netherlands: Cillessen; Veltman, de Ligt, van Dijk, Blind; Wijnaldum, De Jong, Propper; Malen, Depay, Babel.

Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell; Smith, J Evans, Cathcart, Dallas; Whyte, C Evans, Saville, Davis, McNair; Magennis.

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