Michael O’Neill serious about focusing on enjoyment

Euro 2016: Northern Ireland squad in buoyant mood during get-together in Republic

A Northern Ireland football flag blew stiff in the breeze in Co Kildare yesterday. Beneath it, the Northern Ireland manager, Michael O'Neill, jogged past, while his assistant, Jimmy Nicholl (60), followed on a segway. The sun shone, the smiles were plentiful, and O'Neill was cracking jokes.

Carton House was the venue O'Neill had selected for the Northern Ireland players to gather pre-Euros. There were a few days in England last week, training at Manchester City, and tomorrow it is up to Belfast in readiness for Friday's friendly against Belarus. Then there is a camp in Austria.

On Monday night, fresh from winning the Irish Open nearby at the K Club, Rory McIlroy popped in to offer a pep talk, telling a story of how his father would encourage him as boy by saying a par three was a par five. Then, if McIlroy scored four, he thought it was one under.

O’Neill’s response to this was to inform his squad that if they’re 3-0 down at half-time to Germany in Paris, he will tell them they’re 2-0 up.


O’Neill has been to Carton House before. It was here that he once held pre-season training for Shamrock Rovers when managing in the League of Ireland.

“We brought Shamrock Rovers here,” he said, “to an extent – in that we used the facility here. We held a three-day training camp, but it was slightly different in that we sent the players back home each day, which lowers your costs quite a bit.

“It was the quality of the pitches. In the League of Ireland, we were preparing for pre-season, and that was January. So our pre-season was consistently on artificial surfaces. We wanted to get them off that. We’d do double sessions here, eat here; the hotel was brilliant. At that time, some of the League of Ireland clubs were going away to Spain. We didn’t have the budget.”

It is seven years since Rovers hosted Real Madrid in Dublin – Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real debut – and the Spanish stayed at Carton House.

“If it’s good enough for them . . .” said O’Neill.

There was also the break from Belfast, where there is no comparable complex, though O’Neill said when he heard the Northern media were coming south, “I was advocating putting the Border back up!”.

Breaking the bad news

It was that kind of afternoon, O’Neill even larking about when asked how he would break the bad news to the five players who will not make the 23-man squad he announces at the Titanic Centre in Belfast on Saturday.

“I could just send them a sad face on the mobile,” he joked. “There’s always that alternative. Group text? WhatsApp? No, it’ll be a one-on-one conversation where I explain the reasons. I’ll tell them I’ve looked at the options.

“Listen, I expect players to be disappointed; I’m hoping they won’t attack me. And the players who are left out, it is a moment in time, it doesn’t mean they won’t go on to have good international careers.”

The buoyant mood was important, he said. “The whole thing has to be an enjoyable experience for the players. Imagine if they came back and said: ‘That was torture.’

“We’re in a situation where this is the first tournament for our players. There shouldn’t be boredom. This could be a one-off for them. Who knows if they’ll get this opportunity again? So it has to be enjoyable, but focused as well.”

Bar Millwall's Shane Ferguson, who has the League One play-off final at Wembley on Sunday, all players are fit and present. Kyle Lafferty, O'Neill's key striker, has endured another difficult season at club level, first ignored by Norwich City, then sent out on loan to Birmingham City.

Lafferty then got married in Glasgow last Saturday, but spent the days before the wedding training at Motherwell with the Northern Ireland fitness coach.

“He’s done a lot of extra work,” O’Neill. “He’s not unfit. It’s just the game situation is the challenge. We’ve two friendlies now, but it never replicates the intensity of competitive games. And also the mental preparation.”

As of yesterday, Northern Ireland’s preparation looked fine. And the news from first opponents Poland is that Sevilla midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak has an injury.

Michael Walker

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a contributor to The Irish Times, specialising in soccer