Michael O’Neill builds real unity of purpose
Northern Ireland’s huge transformation has been enabled by their young manager
Victory over Greece sent Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland to their first major tournament since 1986. Photograph: Getty
Even Michael O’Neill said it was “special”. He said it twice, in fact three times. There is a brilliant realism to the Northern Ireland manager but even O’Neill was swept away amid the sounds of champagne corks popping at Windsor Park on Thursday night.
O’Neill, 46, has joined that famous pair and while he is uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, attention is coming his way and it is deserved.
Celtic are watching from Glasgow, while Northern Ireland fans chant regularly towards O’Neill asking for a wave. He never obliges. But on Thursday, 3-0 ahead against Greece, O’Neill gave a thumbs-up, and quickly regretted it.
“As soon as I stuck my thumb up, the Greeks scored,” he said. “So that will never, ever happen again. It’s not in my make-up to be like that. The supporters were singing for me to give a wave. Personally, I hate that.”
There are various elements to Northern Ireland’s rise since O’Neill succeeded Nigel Worthington at the end of 2011, but each one of them, from discipline to spirit, stems from the man who began his playing career at Coleraine in 1984 and his managerial career at Brechin City in 2006.
O’Neill alluded to his first match in charge of Northern Ireland in February 2012. It was a 3-0 home defeat to Norway. O’Neill mentioned it because his wife, Bronagh, and his daughters went to it and had not been back since, until Thursday.
Looking at O’Neill’s team against Norway, only Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis and Corry Evans started it and the Greece game. There are limited numbers to choose from but O’Neill has presided over a turnover. Yet, within that, there is the thread of men like McAuley and Davis.
Consistency of selectionLincoln City
Having that availability and commitment has enabled O’Neill to forge a club feel to an international set-up. He often refers to the past, when Northern Ireland players would sometimes find reasons not to turn up. Beginning with his persuasion of Aaron Hughes to come out of retirement, O’Neill has changed attitudes.
Against Portugal at Windsor Park, both Lafferty and Brunt were sent off. A 2-1 lead became a 2-4 defeat and as McAuley said last week, the remaining nine gave so much they had “nothing in the tank” when facing Luxembourg four days later. O’Neill experienced his lowest moment, a 3-2 defeat against a tax haven.
In the next qualifier, a loss in Azerbaijan, Jonny Evans was sent off. Of 10 qualifiers, Northern Ireland won one.
There were three Irish players suspended on Thursday but as O’Neill stressed happily the day before: “This is the first suspension I’ve had to deal with in the group.”
Lafferty did not score in World Cup 2014 qualification; he has seven in this campaign. His rangy presence has given the team a cutting edge it lacked and has been vital in turning good performances into wins rather than draws.
From scoring nine in ten 2014 qualifiers, Northern Ireland have 15 in nine 2016 qualifiers.
Crucially, Lafferty’s first goal was the 88th-minute winner in Hungary in the first game. That was followed by a 2-0 home win against the Faroes.
“That’s the sort of game we’ve slipped up in before,” said McAuley, who pointed out that travelling to Athens three days later, the players were fresh and confident as opposed to tired and pessimistic when going to Luxembourg a year earlier. Northern Ireland had momentum.
Evans was ruled out and stayed with his club but on Thursday, just to be there, he flew in. Yesterday Evans flew back to England, not on to Finland.
This mattered to O’Neill. He knows talk of spirit can be overblown, but what Evans did showed what his Northern Ireland squad possess: “Real togetherness”.