Michael O’Neill goes back to future with his band of brothers

Togetherness is the watchword for Northern Ireland manager with few stars to call on

Manager Michael O’Neill speaking during the Northern Ireland squad announcement at the Titanic Museum, Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Manager Michael O’Neill speaking during the Northern Ireland squad announcement at the Titanic Museum, Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

The rosy cheeks of Martin O’Neill appeared on screen in Belfast on Saturday. O’Neill was part of an impressive montage of Northern Ireland’s football history that took an eager audience at the Titanic centre back to the World Cups of 1958, 1982 and 1986 in order to herald Michael O’Neill’s squad announcement for Euro 2016.

Anticipation was laced with nostalgia – and there just happened to be a collection of DeLorean cars outside Titanic as this took place.

O’Neill – Michael – received a standing ovation from hundreds of fans, then Pat Jennings reminisced about 1982.

Jennings recalled how Northern Ireland had been portrayed as boozers in the Spanish media in the build-up to the Spain-Northern Ireland match in Valencia. After the Irish won 1-0, Jennings said Martin O’Neill addressed the press: “Imagine if we’d been sober!”

There were other tales from the past from Peter McParland, one of the heroes of 1958, who at 82 is sparky enough to say he would give Kyle Lafferty “a toe up his rear end”.

It was actually a compliment, McParland being keen to see Lafferty do for a club what he does for Northern Ireland.

Lafferty scored his 17th international goal against Belarus on Friday night at Windsor Park after a season at club level where he played three times for Norwich City as a substitute and six times on loan for Birmingham City, only one of which was for 90 minutes.

Relegated

In the 23-man squad Lafferty is one of just six who belong to Premier League clubs, but like Paddy McNair at Manchester United, he is no regular. There are five players who spent last season in League One, though one them, Doncaster Rovers’ Luke McCullough, was relegated to League Two.

Lafferty’s lack of matches has seen him receive individual fitness attention with Northern Ireland and Michael O’Neill concedes that in the heat of southern France, Lafferty is unlikely to last 90 minutes alone up front.

It made O’Neill’s striker selection all the more relevant and he has included two England-born forwards who have caught his eye over the last few months, QPR’s Conor Washington and Wigan Athletic’s Will Grigg.

Birmingham-born Grigg, who qualifies via an Irish grandfather, scored 28 goals for Wigan as they won League One. He thumped in his first Irish goal late on Friday. Grigg, Washington – who also scored against Belarus – and Josh Magennis are likely to have important roles from the bench in France.

Of course none are household names à la Robert Lewandowski but then as O’Neill said: “The fact we are a team is the biggest thing.”

That’s not propaganda. On Friday night at Windsor, after the game had ended, O’Neill and his players went back onto the Windsor pitch to say farewell to the crowd, who waited.

As the IFA projected the association badge onto a giant screen, the words “Together We Are One” appeared and O’Neill took to the microphone to salute “a team that represents us all”.

That held a significance beyond football and O’Neill has spoken over the past week about playing for Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

At Titanic on Saturday he added: “When I played for the Northern Ireland team it was together, there were never any issues with that, even if those were different times in Northern Ireland. As Northern Ireland is now, this team is a really strong reflection of the society now that we live in.”

He then turned to the players who have developed so coherently under him during the past four years, the last two in particular.

Past or present

“When I took the job I didn’t feel the team had a strong identity,” O’Neill said.

“Even in the stadium, we’d go and there was nothing on the wall that made you think you were playing for Northern Ireland, no images, nothing from the past or the present. It was something that we tried to address.”

As each player’s name was announced at Titanic, his face was projected onto the Giant’s Causeway and O’Neill said after that: “We’ve done a lot to give the players a real sense of what it means to play for your country.

“It’d be wrong to say they’d lost that, but maybe they’d lost the hope they could achieve something. Numerous times I’ve said to the players we’re not just here to pick up caps, there’s more to it than that.”

O’Neill talked of “creating new history” and returned to the theme of togetherness. At home to Hungary in the eighth qualifier last September, goalkeeper Michael McGovern dropped the ball and the Irish were losing. Chris Baird was then sent off, only for Lafferty to snaffle a last-minute equaliser that had Windsor rocking.

“The relationship between the players and supporters is maybe stronger than it’s ever been,” O’Neill said.

“I saw that at the Hungary game. When Michael [McGovern] makes a mistake, the crowd got behind Michael and willed the team on, we were down to 10 men.

“That is what ‘Together We Are One’ symbolises – when you’re into the last 10 minutes of the game and you have to get something.”

The squad heads for a training camp in Austria followed by a friendly against Slovakia on Saturday, then onto France to their base north of Lyon.

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