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O'Neill will continue to put trust in foundations being laid

 

By Paul Ferguson

From the moment Michael O'Neill answered Kyle Lafferty's midnight call on the eve of Northern Ireland's first full training session at their Austrian base in Bad Tatzmannsdorf, it set off a catalogue of unfortunate incidents that gave the manager an almighty headache which only intensified throughout the trips to Vienna and Sarajevo.

With Rangers hitman Lafferty withdrawing his services due to the fact he apparently wanted to rest his Achilles, Niall McGinn (hip injury) and Jamie Ward (lack of fitness) soon followed, leaving O'Neill, who was already without Sheffield United striker Conor Washington for personal reasons, light on the attacking front.

Rookie Kyle Vassell, new to the Championship and without a goal this season with Rotherham, was drafted in, but O'Neill was down another striker with Liam Boyce injuring his knee in training which ruled him out of the Austria game.

Having to field questions and queries on Lafferty's international future, and then firing a broadside response to Karl Robinson after the Oxford United manager had been critical about Gavin Whyte's call-up, was a distraction O'Neill looked immensely peeved about at his pre-match media conference.

The clash with Austria, O'Neill hoped, would bring Northern Ireland back into contention in the Nations League after their gut-wrenching opening defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina at Windsor Park last month.

But it was yet more frustration, with Northern Ireland sloppy in possession at times, wasteful with opportunities that came their way, including from the dependable Steven Davis, unable to stop Marko Arnautovic beating their offside trap to score the winning goal and then, after Will Grigg was unfortunate to see his glancing header hit the post, the Wigan Athletic striker, who looked particularly dangerous, pulled his hamstring, ruling him out of the game in Sarajevo.

Northern Ireland could quite easily have secured a draw at the Ernst Happel Stadium, they certainly created enough chances, but the difference is having a player of Arnautovic's class, with his strength and speed, to finish with aplomb.

Three days later in the Bosnian capital, at a tight and compact little stadium, former Manchester City star Edin Dzeko, returning to a venue where he started his career, gave his own masterclass in finishing with two goals, and possibly should have had a hat-trick as he appeared to be onside when he blasted home a volley, but the officials came to Northern Ireland's rescue by ruling it out.

That, though, was pretty much the only piece of luck Northern Ireland enjoyed throughout the entire trip.

O'Neill's men may have offered a much improved performance from Vienna, however it counted for little as yet again they were unable to find the net - their sixth away game in succession without scoring.

Northern Ireland struck the post three times, with George Saville and Whyte missing glorious opportunities, and poor young left-back Jamal Lewis slipping at a crucial time on the edge of the box allowed Bosnia to go on and score the opener through Dzeko - who certainly doesn't miss from close range.

It was disappointing for Norwich City youngster Lewis, but he was simply caught out as he thought Jonny Evans may clear the ball in front of him and then he tried to make a quick change to his direction and slipped.

The pitch had also been watered by sprinklers prior to kick-off, making it a slick surface, and at times it wasn't easy for both sets of players to keep their footing, but having trained on the pitch the previous night, the Northern Ireland boys were more than happy with the surface and the studs they were using.

It was just unfortunate that yet again a defensive error would cost Northern Ireland dear against Bosnia. Add in a failure to be clinical in front of goal and the defeat completely overshadowed all the fine play that they produced.

It's simply fine margins in football.

Just under 18 months ago Azerbaijan dominated Northern Ireland in Baku, but Stuart Dallas popped up at the death to score and win the game, prompting the match to be remembered as a great result.

Northern Ireland have performed much better in these Nations League games than they did on that sultry night in Baku, however football is a results business, and unfortunately you get no points for presentation.

O'Neill is also having to play these competitive games while blooding young guns such as goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Lewis and Whyte into a team in transition, and they are going up against players from the Premier League and Bundesliga.

Paddy McNair is also being used in an unfamiliar right-back role.

Then you have experienced stars Evans, Davis and Dallas not seeing as much first-team action with their clubs, which can affect their displays, and, of course, three regular performers over the years are missing - Gareth McAuley (regaining fitness), Chris Brunt (retired) and Lafferty (withdrew) - and, on form, all three of those players would make a monumental contribution to the Northern Ireland team.

The fact that Bosnia coach Robert Prosinecki and star player Dzeko described Northern Ireland, following the match on Monday, as a brilliant team and incredibly dangerous is a terrific compliment, even in this moment of disappointment.

Away double-headers have never been kind to Northern Ireland, with Black September in 2007 still prevalent in the minds of Northern Ireland supporters when Nigel Worthington's charges were on course for Euro qualification only for their hopes and dreams to be destroyed with back-to-back defeats to Latvia and Iceland respectively.

Euro qualification is not really at stake here.

Of course, you could reach the finals in 2020 through the Nations League, but it involves a convoluted way and manager O'Neill has always been targeting qualification from the campaign which kicks-off next March after the draw is made in Dublin on December 2.

O'Neill will trust by then the young players will have gained valuable experience from the Nations League, and playing against the Republic in next month's friendly, his team will eradicate the defensive errors, be lethal in front of goal while continuing to develop the high press style of play.

Just don't expect O'Neill to answer any late night phone calls from Lafferty, if he is allowed back into the manager's squad, on the eve of training camps in future.

It can only lead to misery...

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