Michael O’Neill seeking cure for Northern Ireland’s away-day blues

Qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus offer opportunity for first away win in 21 months

Michael O’Neill is confident Northern Ireland can end their away-day blues as they continue their push to qualify for Euro 2020.

Northern Ireland face Estonia on Saturday in Tallinn and Belarus in Borisov on Monday in two games which are virtually must-win before they take on the Netherlands and Germany in Group C later in the year.

O’Neill’s side are without a win on the road since beating San Marino in September 2017, a run of seven games.

But O’Neill has previously played down the importance of recent away defeats in friendlies and the Nations League, and pointed instead to better results across both the run to the Euro 2016 finals and the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.


“Like Estonia, we’re a small nation and we often find it difficult away from home,” said O’Neill, whose side will be roared on by 1,100 travelling fans in Tallinn.

“If you look at the last two [qualifying] campaigns our away record is quite strong – we had maybe 10 points in the campaign for Euro 2016 and about seven for the World Cup, so we are much better equipped to play away from home than we have been in the past.

“I know historically our away record is something different but this is a different group of players and Steven [Davis, Northern Ireland captain] would verify that there is a confidence when we go away from home now that we are capable of getting a result.”

Delivering on that potential looks like a minimum requirement for Northern Ireland as they look to force their way into the top two in the group come November.

Victories over Estonia and Belarus in March give them a chance of going into their games against the Dutch and Germany with 12 points in the bank if they can repeat the trick this weekend, making qualification a much more realistic prospect.

“We believe if we can get similar results as we had in the first round of fixtures, we essentially go into a group of three and it’s almost like a knockout scenario in the sense of a two-legged affair with the Netherlands and Germany,” O’Neill said.

“That in itself is a huge task, but it’s a task we would like to meet head on.”

Northern Ireland dominated the reverse fixture against Estonia in March, even if they had to wait until the second half to make the breakthrough in a 2-0 win that came with goals from Niall McGinn and Davis.

Davis did not shy away from calling these next two games ‘must-win’ for Northern Ireland, just as their March fixtures were, to keep their hopes alive.

“We said from the outset when we looked at the group that we were going to have to take maximum points from the games we had in March – we managed to get the job done there – and now we look to these two games over the next few days to try and do the same again,” he said.

“We’re not underestimating how difficult it is going to be, it is going to be a good test these two games. We’re away from home, we have to take into account the heat and our club seasons ending some time ago.

“But I think we are well prepared, and we can go into the two games in confident mood.”