Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland must banish travel woe

By Steven Beacom

As Michael O'Neill spoke to his players on the Nicosia pitch, where Northern Ireland will play Cyprus in a friendly tonight (6.00pm), it was impossible not to notice the large sign behind him.

It read: "Winning is a state of mind."

Too true. Unfortunately as Northern Ireland manager, O'Neill has not experienced a winning feeling too often.

Just once in fact since his appointment in December 2011. It was against Fabio Capello's Russia in front of a jubilant Windsor Park crowd, but it still only counts as one.

O'Neill, in his 16th game in charge, is itching to double his tally tonight, not only to increase his win ratio, which stands at a dismal seven per cent, but even more crucially to instill belief and breed confidence in the squad ahead of the 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign which begins in six months time.

O'Neill has promised an adventurous starting line-up against Cyprus to grab the goals that would lead to a victory. Ahead of the game he was also at pains to point out how much he wanted a clean sheet.

His side have failed horribly in those areas in his reign so far, not least in the last away match Northern Ireland were supposed to win, when the Green and White Army were left shellshocked by a 2-0 defeat in Azerbaijan in a World Cup encounter.

The good news is Cyprus are a much poorer side than Azerbaijan.

"It's important that we win. We want to see the team enjoy the game, play on the front foot and with a smile," said O'Neill.

"We'll pick a team with a lot of attacking options and we want to see that bear fruit. The performance level is important and we want to see things in our game that we'll need if we are going to pick points up away from home in the next campaign.

"One of those things is keeping a clean sheet, another is capitalising on opportunities because at times in the World Cup – against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg particularly – we didn't do that. It's about getting the level of performance right because that will take care of the result."

There have been troubled times in recent years but even so it is remarkable to think Northern Ireland have not scored in an away friendly for nine games, stretching back to 2006 when a 2-1 victory over Finland was secured.

"We have to accept where we are. We're not a nation who will score a huge number of goals and never have been," says O'Neill.

"But if you look at the statistics from World Cup qualification, one of the most interesting for me was that Greece won eight games and only scored 12 goals.

"We have to look at how countries like that progress and qualify. You would obviously like to come away from home and score goals on a regular basis but that's just not Northern Ireland."

History may be against the team on the road – their last away victory was in Slovenia in 2009 – but in 2015 the record must improve because this year there's only ONE match at Windsor Park... against the Faroe Islands in October in the Euro qualifiers.

Otherwise it's a case of away the lads with tonight's game in Cyprus, more friendlies in South American to warm up Uruguay and Chile for the World Cup and then Euro games in Hungary, Greece and Romania.

"This group of lads have been asked to play away a lot," says 44-year-old O'Neill.

"This is game number five in a row, then we go to South America and three of our first four qualifiers are on the road. That's tough on the players but we do have a great spirit and we rely on that."

O'Neill will start with familiar faces, but has the opportunity to blood two uncapped players – Dundee United midfielder Paul Paton, eligible under the parentage rule, and Milton Keynes Dons midfielder Ben Reeves, whose granny hails from Fermanagh.

"Expanding the player pool is a big thing," says the manager.

"Paul is a player I've seen more than Ben, he's very disciplined and hard working while Ben is doing well at MK Dons.

"This is a step up for them and they have to adapt to that. Certainly, they haven't looked out of place since they've come in. Showing they are good enough for international football is a big incentive for them."

There's also plenty of incentive for O'Neill, handed a two year contract extension in November.

Some Northern Ireland fans didn't think he merited a new deal. Tonight he can start to show everyone he did.

Belfast Telegraph

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