Belfast Telegraph

Video: Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill daring to dream about another chapter

By Laure James

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has revealed that preparations for the World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan in June are already under way - and the trip will be Group C's greatest challenge for his troops.

Northern Ireland are second in their qualifying group, and have still to host Norway in March, yet having to play the team they're level on points with on their own turf in Baku in the summer will not be easy.

"We've already started our preparation for Azerbaijan which will be a very difficult game for us, away on June 10. For some of our players, their season will have ended 42 days before that, so it's a huge challenge for them to deal with that game and we're looking at that very, very closely," said O'Neill, whose side beat Azerbaijan 4-0 at Windsor Park earlier this month.

"The focus is purely on Norway and Azerbaijan. The hope is to make 2017 another fantastic year. The next two games are crucial in terms of putting ourselves in a strong position in the group."

Speaking last night at the launch of Dare to Dream, a new book chronicling Northern Ireland's adventure at Euro 2016, he continued: "Then you've two double-headers in September and October, so I think the important thing is we're in the place where we're at.

"We've a little gap on Czech Republic and Norway, and we're level with Azerbaijan. We are in a good position but hopefully the experience of the last two years will help.

"I remember when we played Finland at home and then Romania at home (in the Euro 2016 qualifiers), and I wondered how the players were going to deal with the pressure. They dealt with it fantastically and the experience of having done that will leave them in good stead in June."

Hundreds of people queued at Eason in Belfast to pick up Dare to Dream, which is packed with photographs and memories from Northern Ireland's unforgettable summer in France - and O'Neill admits he is looking forward to putting his feet up at Christmas with a copy. It's been a non-stop adventure for the manager, who Harry Redknapp this week labelled the best coach in the British Isles.

O'Neill laughed: "I texted him and told him to say that! No, I didn't hear that to be honest, it was very nice of him to say so.

"I've had a lot of plaudits, that's all well and good but you're only as good as the players you have and what you do with them.

"I had a lot of awards and recognition last year, I am looking forward to a quieter Christmas.

"(The book) brings back memories, it's lovely that they've done this and it's fitting. Having seen the book, it's very, very well done. It's nice for us to be able to look back on this, I am not a great one for keeping things throughout my career, and my family always berate me for that, I don't tend to keep things.

"But this is a nice thing to have, I'd say I'll look over it at Christmas."

It will be welcome respite for IFA chiefs, who have been privately sweating over speculation that O'Neill was next in line to succeed Gordon Strachan, but the former Celtic boss will now be staying on with the Scottish FA.

Fans were twitching over fears O'Neill could be lured away, yet he has insisted his focus is on the current World Cup campaign.

"I just go about the job that I am in. Speculation is a vicious circle, my responsibility is to do the job that I'm in to the best of my ability and that's all my focus has been on," he added.

"Football taught me as a player not to get too carried away with anything. Anything which is written about me I tend not to read, but equally the main thing for me is to look at Norway."

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