Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill: It's been hell but I'm not giving up on Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill is sitting in the first floor lounge of the Europa Hotel in Belfast. There's a pained expression as he puts his hand to his face, pauses and gives himself a few seconds before answering the question.

I've asked him to explain exactly how he feels about not having won a match yet as Northern Ireland manager.

Seeing his reaction, I feel a bit like I've just taken a shot at Bambi!

We're halfway through an interview in which O'Neill has been honest, open and forthright about his time in charge of the national team to date.

O'Neill's previous experience as boss was at Shamrock Rovers where he won more than could have been expected from him – the back to back League of Ireland titles were impressive, but inspiring the Dublin outfit to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League was staggering.

Fifteen months on from officially taking charge of Northern Ireland and nine games in, O'Neill takes it personally that he has still not been on the winning side.

He answers the question: "It's not easy. Not at all. When you don't win you look at every single way that you could win, but the problem as an international manager is that there's so long between games you torture yourself and over-think the situation."

There's another pause, then with admirable courage of his convictions, O'Neill adds: "I believe the way we have prepared the team has been of a really high standard and I think the players think that as well.

"Maybe there are slight things that I would tweak but I don't think that I would change the mak- up of the team or the way we would play.

"There is a consistency to what we are trying to do and we just need the results to go with it. As a manager you have to believe in your methods and I still do."

For all the "torture", it is pleasing to hear that O'Neill retains faith in himself. He'll need it for the World Cup qualifiers to come and perhaps beyond if the Irish FA extend his two-year contract at the end of the campaign.

He says: "Realistically it takes a year or even a campaign in this job to find out what is required and find out about your players and know who you can rely on 100%. When I took the job people said to me it was going to be a very difficult task but I felt then, as I do now, I can't be a worse manager for doing it.

"I know I'll be a better manager after this campaign than I was before and be more equipped to do it."

There has been criticism, some of it from fans, some from the reporter opposite him.

Others have described him as an 'unlucky boss'. The 42-year-old, who made a name for himself as a classy midfielder at the likes of Newcastle, Hibs, Dundee United and a host of other clubs before moving into management, winces a little when that term is mentioned.

Despite the winless streak for Northern Ireland, which it should be noted extends beyond his reign, O'Neill says 'no, not really' when I ask if he feels under pressure.

"What we obviously need is a win to change the mindset and give everyone a lift. We have drawn five out of our nine games and we don't want to be a team that accepts not winning. We have to find a way through me, the coaches and the players to win games," he adds.

In the World Cup qualifiers, Northern Ireland's record reads five games, three draws and two defeats which has left the team with three points and in fourth place in Group F, already way behind Russia, Portugal and Israel.

Northern Ireland's modest ambition for the remainder of the campaign is to finish above Azerbaijan and Luxembourg, who both gained 1-1 draws at Windsor Park last year.

After those games, and the 2-0 home loss to Israel in March, I wrote that O'Neill had allowed the matches to drift and didn't bring on substitutes like David Healy and Paddy McCourt quickly enough.

No point writing it and then not bringing it up face to face.

O'Neill's response: "The substitutions we have made in games are always influenced by how the players are. I think you and others in the media maybe are influenced by their past contribution as international players.

"I'm looking at their current state and where they are as players. Consider the Azerbaijan game for example, David Healy had a calf injury and we knew we would get 10 minutes out of him, maybe 15 minutes maximum.

"Thankfully he scored very late on but we could have put him on with 25 minutes to go and he may have limped off 10 minutes later and then we would have been playing with 10 men.

"Regarding getting Paddy McCourt on earlier I repeat I know where the players are physically in the build-up to games and am aware what we can get out of them."

O'Neill was once part of the media acting as a pundit on Northern Ireland games. Now he's the one being judged.

He says: "The media side of the job is fine for me. I don't think I have any enemies in the media.

"Of course I want some expectation and have told the players that we're not just here to fulfil fixtures and pick up caps and there has to be a purpose at the end of it, but I do feel sometimes the expectation in the media is a bit unrealistic. Our fans are actually more realistic."

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