O’Neill looking to put smile back on fans’ faces
Northern Ireland look set to play World Cup qualifier
Michael O’Neill wants his players to put a smile back on the faces of Northern Ireland fans after a tough week in Belfast.
Extreme weather conditions over the weekend forced the postponement of the World Cup qualifier against Russia on Friday night and then again the following afternoon, but that was far from the only problem experienced in the country.
The snow that had settled on the Windsor Park pitch also led to thousands of homes suffering power cuts, city centre businesses being hit by the same problem and the closure of the runway at George Best Belfast City Airport.
Conditions have eased up over the last couple of days and the Irish Football Association are confident there will be no problems with tomorrow’s Group F meeting with Israel.
Lingering snow was cleared this afternoon and Israel were given the green light to train at Windsor Park after a Fifa inspection at 2pm today.
O’Neill was also satisfied after personally assessing the playing surface this morning.
All that remains to complete the growing feel-good factor is a positive result tomorrow night.
It has been too long since the national side left fans with that winning feeling — 12 games and counting – but O’Neill knows what it means to the public when local sportsmen, such as golfing heroes Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, succeed.
“This week we’ve had power cuts and everything else that was going on in the country, there were a lot more severe things going on other than the fact we couldn’t get a football match on,” he said.
“The weather got the better of us on this occasion. But I always think the players are fully aware and recognise the significance of a positive result.
“We see that with Ulster rugby, we see that with the golfers when they are successful and this is an opportunity for us for a good performance and a good result.
“If it brightens the nation then that’s a nice side effect to have.”
Given the unpredictability of the weather and the speed with which it deteriorated on Friday, all eyes will be on the skies until the players finally make it on to the pitch tomorrow.
But O’Neill does not anticipate another postponement.
The match referee, alongside Fifa officials, will make a planned inspection at 10.30am in the morning – during which time the pitch will be assessed again in line with standard regulations.
“I was at the pitch this morning – it’s not wet and it’s not sticky,” said O’Neill, who has had to be creative with training this week, making unexpected trips to Ballymena and Jordanstown in search of suitable synthetic pitches.
“In fact, it’s nice and dry and it’s as good as it was before the snow was on it.
“The pitch is nice and firm, albeit slightly softer than it was when we trained on it on Thursday but we have no concerns about the pitch at all.
“The groundsman has done a fantastic job.”
The IFA had the final word on playing conditions, posting the following update on their official website: “The Irish FA is working tirelessly to prepare the pitch at Windsor Park for the World Cup qualifier against Israel.
“A pitch inspection will be carried out by the referee on Tuesday morning as part of his normal duties.
“The thaw has greatly helped the pitch and it is firm underfoot.
“Covers will be in place tonight. The aim of covers are to protect the pitch from the frost.”
The prospects of Northern Ireland losing a second World Cup qualifier to the weather receded this afternoon, with Israel given the green light to train at Windsor Park.
Russia left Belfast without fulfilling their Group F clash after the original Friday night kick-off and a revised start time of 3pm on Saturday were called off due to heavy snow and pitch ice.
There had been some concerns tomorrow’s visit of Israel would also be under threat, but a clear-up operation took place at the ground today and a Fifa delegation were dispatched to check the playing surface was safe for the visitors to practise at 5pm.
They confirmed they were happy for the session to go ahead, meaning the only threat to tomorrow’s 7.45pm start would be another bout of extreme weather in the next 24 hours.
The match referee, alongside Fifa officials, will make a planned inspection at 10.30am in the morning — during which time the pitch will be assessed again in line with standard regulations.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill made his own visit to the stadium earlier today and is certain there will be no problems with the pitch.
“I was at the pitch this morning, it’s not wet and it’s not sticky,” he said.
“In fact it’s nice and dry and it’s as good as it was before the snow was on it.
“The pitch is nice and firm, albeit slightly softer than it was when we trained on it on Thursday, but we have no concerns about the pitch at all. The groundsman has done a fantastic job.”