Michael O’Neill continues to make the most of scarce resources

Professionalism, pride and preparation the mark of the new-look Northern Ireland

Michael O’Neill: has overseen a transformation in Northern Ireland’s fortunes since he took over at the helm. Photograph:  Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Michael O’Neill: has overseen a transformation in Northern Ireland’s fortunes since he took over at the helm. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

 

Group C: Northern Ireland v Norway, Windsor Park, Sunday, 7.45pm (Live Sky Sports 2 from 7.30pm)

On the weekend of January 21st and 22nd Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea were all at home, while Manchester City hosted Tottenham Hotspur. The Premier League had its weekly buzz. Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, was at Hartlepool v Stevenage in Division Two.

O’Neill was at Victoria Park principally to watch two 20-year-old Stevenage players – Dale Gorman and Ben Kennedy. Both were substituted in a 2-0 defeat.

It is unlikely O’Neill departed Hartlepool uplifted, but a few weeks later he was able to name a 24-man squad for tomorrow’s potentially pivotal qualifier against Norway in Belfast without delving into England’s fourth tier.

O’Neill had been checking on the future. It is not teeming with young talent, which is part of the reason why the issue of northern boys choosing to play for the FAI is a sensitive one for the 47-year-old former Shamrock Rovers manager.

It is also in part why tomorrow the Northern Ireland starting XI is likely to include 37-year-old Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt (32), Michael McGovern (32) and Steven Davis (32). Aaron Hughes is another important piece of the O’Neill squad and he, also, is 37.

It is notable that McAuley, Hughes and Davis all played in O’Neill’s first match as Northern Ireland manager just over five years ago, as did stalwarts Jonny Evans and his brother Corry. That game, a friendly lost 3-0 at Windsor Park, was also against Norway.

Then Northern Ireland were in the midst of a run of 42 games dating from June 2009 to June 2014 that included only three victories. Nigel Worthington had stepped aside and O’Neill moved north from Shamrock Rovers.

But many of the personnel remained the same because, as O’Neill’s visits to places like Hartlepool show, resources are scarce.

“It’s no secret, the size of our resources, and that’s as much a challenge as the football side of things,” says Hughes, who had retired when O’Neill took the job.

A phone call and meeting later and Hughes was in the line-up versus Norway in February 2012.

More professional

“Asking me back?” Hughes asks, “maybe that was the resources too.

“When you look back at that first team against Norway, and now, there’s continuity, more than you might expect. I think it shows we always had potential, it just needed someone to come in and change the mindset, make it more challenging.

“When Michael and I sat down, all the things he said were all the things I’d have said. I thought: ‘Finally’. “It was more professional, definitely, more like a club. At a club you can’t afford to have an easy day, you get found out. You have to compete – Michael brought in that mentality.

“He also challenged the ‘little Northern Ireland’ mentality. When you hear that for so long, you come to accept it. If you don’t win, you think: ‘Well, that’s just the way it is.’

“Michael said: ‘No, that’s not OK.’ He wanted to bring a bit of pride back. We needed a bit of structure as well, so that small things could not be used as an excuse. You have to prepare properly.”

Professionalism, pride and preparation saw Northern Ireland go from three wins in 42 to three in a row at the start of Euro 2016 qualification. Ultimately that brought victory in their group win and an appearance in France.

And to the credit of O’Neill and his players, they have not stopped. Meeting Norway tomorrow, the Irish can cement second place behind Germany with another victory.

Norway, once a small-nation power, have won one of four qualifiers to date and have responded to that by appointing Lars Lagerback, the man who fashioned Iceland’s rise from obscurity. Lagerback will surely pick Bournemouth’s Josh King up front, but the Swede’s arrival makes Norway difficult to predict.

O’Neill’s players of 2012 and 2017 are not. They know the drill.

“It comes from within, there’s no acceptance,” Hughes says. “If you can call it a culture, the culture within the team is a culture of standards. You don’t come here to relax from your club and have a few days away. All the lads now buy into that. It’s not even a thought, it’s a habit.”

Northern Ireland (possible 3-5-2) M McGovern; C Cathcart, G McAuley, J Evans; C McLaughlin, O Norwood, S Davis, C Evans, C Brunt; C Washington, K Laffe

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