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Steven Davis: Michael O'Neill overhauled Northern Ireland's fortunes by making us believe

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Strong relationship: Steven Davis and Michael O’Neill (right)

Strong relationship: Steven Davis and Michael O’Neill (right)

�INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Strong relationship: Steven Davis and Michael O’Neill (right)

Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis says the key to the side's transformation under Michael O'Neill was an injection of belief.

When the former Shamrock Rovers chief was chosen as the successor to Nigel Worthington in December 2011, O'Neill was inheriting a side that had enjoyed just two wins from their previous 24 games - a run stretching back over two years and eight months.

It wasn't a quick-fix; the first qualifying campaign of his reign ended with Northern Ireland second bottom of the group, behind Azerbaijan and with just seven points from 10 games.

The Irish FA stuck with their man and reaped the richest of rewards just two years later when O'Neill led Northern Ireland to their first ever European Championships.

"He's been fantastic for Northern Ireland as a whole country and for us as a group of players," Davis told the BBC. "He gave us that self belief to go and qualify for a major tournament.

"We were going through a different period (when O'Neill took over) and seriously lacked any level of consistency to give ourselves an opportunity to qualify for a major tournament. Michael came in and made the players believe in themselves.

"He found a formula that worked for us in terms of getting results, everybody bought into that and then it grew from there. Confidence came back into the team and we showed what we were capable of. Michael was at the forefront of everything we did."

The boss has recently explained just how he inspired such a stark turnaround in the nation's fortunes, with what proved over time to be an ingenious conversation.

"What I actually did with them was look back at the (2014 World Cup qualifying) games and we saw that (if the matches had finished) at 75 minutes, we had 15 points. Unfortunately by 90 minutes we only had seven," he said.

"I said to them that they were closer to qualification than they thought, even though they had finished fifth in the group.

"Fifteen points will get you third in nearly any group you're drawn into. We showed them that was how to get a play-off."

Since that Euro 2016 dream, O'Neill has brought Northern Ireland to within a whisker of the World Cup, defeated by Switzerland in the World Cup play-off only thanks to a hugely debatable penalty decision.

"We experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It's been an incredible ride," concluded Davis.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster, who travelled to France to support the side at Euro 2016, also heaped praise on the departing manager, who will now concentrate on his club side Stoke City.

"Michael was such an inspirational leader of the team and that allowed the fans to go and be proud," she said.

"Euro 2016 in France was such a wonderful experience and Michael made that all possible. He gave us hope and allowed us to dream. It's all down to him so I just want to say thank-you."

Belfast Telegraph