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Michael O'Neill: Seeing Northern Ireland transition has been fantastic


In charge: Michael O’Neill looks on as Northern Ireland train in Frankfurt
In charge: Michael O’Neill looks on as Northern Ireland train in Frankfurt

By Paul Ferguson

The fire, determination and focus remain to the end for departing Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill.

Even on the eve of Northern Ireland's final Euro 2020 qualifying match in Frankfurt, with little riding on the game, O'Neill was in full business mode.

A hunger and desire to consistently succeed has certainly served him and Northern Ireland well over the last five years.

There was a brief jovial moment when he joked with a German journalist about Joachim Low hopefully resting key players Toni Kroos and Serge Gnabry for tonight's match. But a few smiles, a quick laugh and it was back on topic.

O'Neill, ever the professional manager, is only too aware that when the opposition are four-time world champions Germany on their home turf, you simply can't be complacent, even for a game with little relevance.

Northern Ireland have played Germany four times in the last three years, with Die Mannschaft victorious on each occasion. As a born winner, O'Neill will not want the Germans to secure a fifth.

The new Stoke boss, however, did allow himself to reflect on his incredible accomplishments since 2014 and his remarkable transition of the Northern Ireland team.

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He enjoyed the fact that he was constantly able to prove people wrong - especially following the Euro 2016 finals when there was a feeling that achievement could not be repeated, the panel of players would split up, O'Neill would quit and there would be a lack of quality coming through.

In the last three campaigns, O'Neill has guided Northern Ireland through 27 qualifying games, where they have won 16, drawn five and lost only six. Outstanding for a country with the pool of players at O'Neill's disposal.

"I'm delighted, really," said O'Neill at the Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt.

Joachim Low
Joachim Low

"I think a lot of people thought after Euro 2016, with the loss of some players, we wouldn't be able to replicate that.

"We did that and were very unlucky to miss out on Russia 2018. There has been an influx of new players, relatively inexperienced players who have been asked to play international football at a very early stage of their club careers as well.

"How those players have adapted to that is testament to the likes of Craig (Cathcart), Jonny (Evans) and Davo (Steven Davis); they have been the backbone of the consistency of the team and have made it easier for those younger players who have come in.

"I think we're in a good place.

"If you look at our qualification record before we played Germany in September, it was over 60 per cent in terms of our win ratio, so for a country like Northern Ireland to have that win ratio in qualification games is extremely pleasing.

"We just have to try and maintain this level and we hope that in future Uefa is a little bit kinder to us when they pull the balls out of the pots and we get a better draw, but otherwise the team is going in the right direction."

Northern Ireland, despite being in with what O'Neill terms as two pot one teams in Germany and the Netherlands, have accumulated 13 points during this qualifying campaign but have also won great admiration for the way they have played against those European giants, refusing to back down and taking the game to them.

"Obviously we hope for more, but we haven't got them," sighed O'Neill.

"We look back to the game in Belfast (Germany won 2-0), we had chances at 0-0 and didn't take them. That was an opportunity we felt we missed.

"We led in Rotterdam and only lost because of the two goals right in injury-time. Of course, we were in a position to take more points, but people have to be realistic with the level of the opposition that we're playing against.

"For most of our players it is a huge step up. For us to get to the finals ahead of Germany and Holland, I'm not sure how many other teams in Europe would be capable of doing that.

"We have a route through the play-offs and the good thing for us is that there won't be anyone at the play-offs at the level of Germany and Holland."

O'Neill is expected to make a few changes to his line-up following Saturday's draw with the Netherlands at Windsor Park.

With Jamal Lewis out injured, Hearts defender Michael Smith should come in at right-back with Stuart Dallas moving over to left-back.

If Jonny Evans is ruled out through illness, which would be a huge blow, Sunderland's Tom Flanagan may come in, although Smith can also play at centre-half.

Northern Ireland, even though they have been confirmed in the play-offs next March, would dearly love to topple Germany in this final game, but O'Neill fears Joachim Low's men, even with numerous changes, will present a formidable challenge as their players will be desperate to impress their manager ahead of the finals next June.

"We'll face a very strong team," stated O'Neill. "One of the difficulties we always have playing Germany is when Yogi (Low) makes substitutions, the players coming on are equally as strong.

"That's a big challenge for us. But when you have a squad with the number of options Germany have, for the players coming in it's a massive incentive because they want to go to the finals.

"We'll certainly be facing a highly-motivated team."

Following this evening's game, O'Neill's focus will immediately turn to his new job at the bet365 Stadium as Stoke have a crucial Championship game against Wigan at the weekend.

For now, though, O'Neill is putting all his efforts into one final giant killing bid as Northern Ireland boss in Frankfurt.


Tonight (7.45pm): Germany v N Ireland; Netherlands v Estonia

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