Belfast Telegraph

Boss deserves praise for keeping his faith in us, says Norwood


By Paul Ferguson in Baku

Four years ago in Baku, Northern Ireland hit an all-time low when they lost 2-0 to Azerbaijan in the penultimate match of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

It came on the back of a humiliating defeat in Luxembourg the previous month.

Jonny Evans was sent off in Baku while Gareth McAuley received a yellow card which also meant he needed to serve a suspension.

It was a bleak period but how times have changed with Northern Ireland competing in the Euro 2016 finals and lying second in Group C of 2018 World Cup qualification for Russia.

And Ollie Norwood, who played that day in the gateway from Europe to Asia, has thanked manager Michael O'Neill for keeping faith in the players who have returned to Baku transformed.

Eight of the XI that started that night are in this squad - and Craig Cathcart and Jamie Ward are only missing due to injury - and Norwood believes plenty of praise should lie at O'Neill's door for his confidence that those players could change their country's fortunes.

"Five years ago, if someone had said how far we'd come after the defeat in Azerbaijan, I think you would have been locked up," he said. "It was a difficult time. We were a squad in transition, not so much in a big overhaul of players, but Michael's vision of where he wanted us to play. That takes time.

"You see managers going to clubs and losing their job after three, four or six months. As players you can see where they are trying to go but it does take time. I'm a big believer in that.

"Players need to get used to a new manager and mindset. Footballers can be quite stubborn in the way they like to do things.

"Thank goodness the Irish FA stuck with Michael and thankfully Michael decided to stick with us. After Luxembourg and Azerbaijan there must have been times when he wondered if he could get the best out of us but he believed in his ability, and he believed in us and he passed it on to us and here we are today."

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