Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Ambitious Michael O'Neill will leave the dugout with Northern Ireland's thanks for a football miracle

 

By John Laverty

It wouldn't be Northern Ireland without some whataboutery. What about that diabolical penalty decision? And what about the assault on Stuart Dallas that demanded, but didn't get, a red card?

What about Jonny Evans' header that was - with cruel, ironic symmetry - cleared off the line by the same bloke who scored the decisive penalty?

What about those fans - once again a credit to themselves and our wee country?

Those are all rhetorical questions, but here's one that requires an immediate answer: what about the future for Michael O'Neill?

A shrewd man, he may well feel this is the right time to say goodbye. Not that we want that.

We're indebted to him for the remarkable turnaround in Northern Ireland's fortunes.

Don't look upon what happened in Switzerland as a failure. Some will, of course, but that's merely an indication of how far we've come over the last two qualifying campaigns.

And I speak as someone who, in a previous existence as this newspaper's football writer, covered Northern Ireland matches for almost two barren decades.

The World Cup adventures of '82 and '86 had become distant memories as Billy Bingham tried, and failed, to recreate the past magic. Of his successors, only Lawrie Sanchez - and then only briefly - threatened to emulate Bingy.

You remember the big moments - those victories over England and Spain, the away win in Vienna that capped Bryan Hamilton's promising, post-Bingham-era start - because they were glistening oases amid deserts of mediocrity.

I remember, for instance, being one of only 2,500 souls who saw us lose to Chile at Windsor Park on a dismal Friday night back in 1989.

Fast forward eight years to a similar loss in Zurich to a near-useless Albania.

The one abiding memory of that debacle - which was played in Switzerland because of civil unrest in Tirana - was of Keith Gillespie repeatedly failing to beat the 'home' side's full-back.

Yet a mere seven days later, the same Gilly produced the greatest performance of his career, destroying Barcelona's world-class defender Sergi Barjuan in a 3-2 victory that still leaves Newcastle United fans dewy-eyed today.

A 4-0 hammering at home to the Republic was also hard to stomach - but, in the annals of ignominy, nothing compares to Luxembourg 3 Northern Ireland 2 at a rain-lashed Stade Josy Barthel in September 2013.

As one wag pointed out, it was the first time we had lost to a radio station and, undoubtedly, the lowest point of fledgling manager O'Neill's career.

You could have forgiven the Irish FA for conceding, there and then, that they'd made a huge mistake in appointing a young, inexperienced, out-of-his-depth boss but, to their eternal credit, they stuck by the Ballymena man.

The point is this: that night - or say, at any point during the long, demoralising, winless and goal-less streak under Sammy McIlroy - what would a GAWA diehard have given to be a mere play-off away from the promised land of the World Cup finals?

O'Neill has conjured up a modern-day football miracle with a squad considerably better on grass than it looks on paper.

On the flip side, however, he has raised expectations - both of him and the team - to unreasonable levels.

Northern Ireland have punched way above their weight in the last two qualifying campaigns and O'Neill will be remembered, and revered, both for those and for helming that monkey-off-the-back appearance in a Euro finals. Not even Bingy managed that.

But is this starting to sound like a football epitaph for the O'Neill-Northern Ireland era?

Well, maybe.

The thing is, we don't know. And to be frank, I thought it was a little disingenuous of Michael to urge veteran campaigners Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley not to walk away from the international set-up when he has yet to pledge his own future to the boys in green and white.

The 48-year-old is well aware that, for managers, timing is everything.

For example, how many Premier League clubs would consider Lawrie Sanchez today? Answer: not one.

Yet, while riding on the back of David Healy's staggering international goalscoring streak a decade ago, the opportunity arose for Sanchez to take over Fulham.

The timing was hardly ideal for a then upwardly mobile Northern Ireland - and ultimately Sanchez didn't last long in that rarefied atmosphere - but you couldn't blame the former Wimbledon FA Cup winner for grasping what he undoubtedly knew was a once-in-a-career opportunity.

Despite the disappointment of Basel, the ambitious O'Neill's stock has never been higher and he will almost certainly take advantage of that in coming months.

We can still dare to dream; we'll just have to start dreaming with someone else in the dugout.

Belfast Telegraph

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