Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill: Let's stand tall and deliver

By Stuart McKinley

Being manager of a Northern Ireland team that struggles to find the net isn't a problem unique to Michael O'Neill.

Even when Billy Bingham led the country through the glory days of the 1980s, just six goals in eight games was enough to qualify for the 1982 World Cup. The team did slightly better with eight in as many games in the 1986 campaign.

Then there is the Sammy McIlroy era. Two years, 12 and a half games, 1,298 minutes of play and the entire Euro 2004 qualifying series went by without a single goal being scored.

O'Neill's team hasn't scored in their last three games, with the most recent goal coming from Steven Davis in a 1-1 draw away to Israel last October and Northern Ireland will face Chile in the early hours of tomorrow morning (1am BST) having not netted in an away friendly since a 2-1 win over Finland back in August 2006 – a month before the famous 3-2 win over Spain.

Thankfully O'Neill has a plan that he hopes will cure the age old goalscoring problem – set-pieces could hold the key, according to the boss.

O'Neill does not hide from the challenge facing his side, one that has existed for Northern Ireland ever since David Healy's remarkable scoring streak dried up and he believes free-kicks and corners are part of the solution.

That sounds good in theory. In practice, Gareth McAuley scored from set-pieces against both Portugal and Luxembourg, but it's not that common an occurance.

And that's also part of the reason why O'Neill has still only experienced one victory – a World Cup qualifying win against Russia last August – in 17 games as Northern Ireland boss.

"The reason it's difficult for us to win games at this moment in time is pure and simple: we struggle to put the ball in the net," said O'Neill.

"It's not a tactical issue, it's a personnel issue. When you have that scenario it's going to be hard to win games, simple as that.

"Northern Ireland need to start scoring more from set-pieces and that's based on two things: quality of delivery and attacking the ball.

"Look at our game against Portugal last year, 4-2, our goals were both from set-pieces and three of theirs were. The Champions League final, Atletico Madrid versus Real Madrid, both scored from set-pieces.

"It's a huge, huge part of the game."

O'Neill has spent plenty of time with his players attempting to increase their threat from dead balls and will continue to do so as Euro 2016 qualification hovers into view, with the opening game away to Hungary in September, with Greece, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands also in the group.

Despite his best intentions, O'Neill accepts his side are not naturally given to wreaking havoc in the opposition area.

"We're not the biggest team, we don't have many of those players," he said.

"When we're missing Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley it's difficult for us at both ends of the pitch at set-pieces.

"We don't really have a defensive player who scores a lot of goals for their club from set-pieces, at the minute it's just not in the make-up of the squad, but it's definitely an area we can improve.

"Anything in the final third of the pitch we need to get better at and maximise. If you only have a certain percentage of ball in that area of the pitch you need to do more with it.

"We're going to need 1-0s, 1-1s. Greece won their group and scored 12 goals in qualifying for the World Cup. They won eight games and drew one scoring 12 goals.

"That's the kind of template we'll look to."

With Evans, McAuley, Alex Bruce, Craig Cathcart and Rory McArdle all absent from the trip, O'Neill was forced to blood Doncaster Rovers defender Luke McCullough against Uruguay.

The Portadown-born 20-year-old earned rave reviews after an impressive debut performance, but O'Neill is crossing his fingers he does not have to throw in another rookie against Chile.

Chris Baird is struggling to make the team for the match in Valparaiso, 70 miles from the Chilean capital Santiago, with tonsillitis and if he fails to make it, the manager faces a straight choice between Conor McLaughlin, who won only his second cap against Uruguay on Saturday morning and Fulham's untried 18-year-old Liam Donnelly.

"We haven't ruled Chris Baird out yet, we'll leave that until the last minute, but he is a serious doubt," said O'Neill.

"He had it before the first game but played extremely well and that maybe knocked him out a bit, what he put into that game.

"To be fair to Chris, many players probably would have asked to go home and he hasn't done that. He wanted to stay and give himself the best chance to play.

"For a senior player in particular that's encouraging. That's the type of example we want.

"He could get a flight home any time he wanted and he's chosen not to do that.

"Chris knows we need him to play so he's going to do everything possible."

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