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'They had to believe': Michael O'Neill explains how he inspired Northern Ireland squad to reach Euro 2016 finals

 

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Michael O’Neill was the guest on Colin Murray's latest 'At Home' podcast.

Michael O’Neill was the guest on Colin Murray's latest 'At Home' podcast.

PA Wire/PA Images

Michael O’Neill was the guest on Colin Murray's latest 'At Home' podcast.

Michael O'Neill has revealed how he injected his Northern Ireland squad with new-found belief after a slow start to his stint in charge.

When the then Shamrock Rovers manager took the reigns on February 1, 2012, he was inheriting a squad that had experienced only two wins from their previous 24 fixtures.

Fast forward over two years and results hadn't got any better, with just a solitary success in O'Neill's first 19 matches in charge.

That had been a 1-0 win in Russia during a World Cup qualifying campaign that saw Northern Ireland finish fifth in their group, seven points behind third-placed Israel and two adrift of Azerbaijan.

The Irish FA made the decision to stick with their man but O'Neill himself knew something had to change.

"It wasn't down to how the players prepared for the games," he told Colin Murray on the latest of the Dundonald man's 'At Home' podcast series.

"They needed to have that motivation and you can only get that by being competitive in the first part of the group. That's what changed.

"The other thing I had to show the players was that they had to have the belief that they have a chance of qualification.

"We had to create that in the mindset."

But Northern Ireland weren't used to making it through qualification. It hadn't happened since they reached back to back World Cups in 1982 and 1986.

So the question was how to alter the mentality?

"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," O'Neill explained.

"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.

"Then when we came into the group, we won the first three games and suddenly we were on nine points.

"The whole mindset changed at that point."

Over the course of the successful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland actually picked up an extra seven points thanks to goals in the last 20 minutes of matches.

O'Neill's point had been taken on board and flipped on its head.

And it began in the very first game, when Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty scored in the final 10 minutes to beat Hungary 2-1.

"We had played well for 70-odd minutes and you think we're going to get beaten but we came back and won," O'Neill recalled.

"The reaction of the players to that win in Budapest was amazing. The biggest thing was that when we got them together again, we had the banana skin of the Faroe Islands at home but we won and then we won in Greece.

"Suddenly, I had a group of players whose mindsets from that moment on has never changed."

That is much to the benefit of the upcoming talent, who O'Neill hopes can maintain the new normal.

"We brought players in and it was easier for them to flourish because the team was doing better," he continued.

"Stuart Dallas is the best example of that. He came in at Hampden (in March 2015) against Scotland. He was in and out of the Brentford team at the time. Then he came on in the qualifier a few days later and I thought he's never going to be out of our team. He hasn't been since.

"Even the likes of (Paddy) McNair, (George) Saville and (Ollie) Norwood - they've played in teams that have threatened to qualify all the time. The likes of Davis haven't.

"There is a good group now who go 'why can't we qualify?' because that's all they've known."

O'Neill, the Irish FA and his club Stoke City are expected to hold discussions over his future as Northern Ireland's Euro 2020 play-offs have been rescheduled for June.

Belfast Telegraph