O'Neill spies Irish potential
Published 04/09/2014 | 10:56
Manager Michael O'Neill sees a Northern Ireland side with "more potential" as he prepares to begin his second qualification campaign at the helm.
O'Neill's maiden attempt was one to forget in terms of results, Northern Ireland finishing fifth in their World Cup group and winning just one of their 10 games.
But during the qualifiers he oversaw a shift in both personnel and tactics, bedding in new players and experimenting with the recently-popularised 3-5-2.
Now it is time for results, with a tightly-matched but hardly terrifying Euro 2016 group featuring Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands.
They kick off with one of their trickier tests, away to Hungary on Sunday night, but O'Neill is cautiously optimistic that things are heading in the right direction.
"I don't know if we're a stronger squad than we were two years ago but I think we're a squad with more potential," he told Press Association Sport.
"We've benefited from the time we've worked together, we've had a chance to build something, and there have been positives this summer in terms of the players' club situations.
"This time last year we still had four or five lads with no clubs sorted and it's asking a lot of someone who is unattached to come in and play qualifiers.
"But this time the ones who were looking - Craig Cathcart, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird, Sammy Clingan, Roy Carroll - all got resolved nice and early.
"All the players have had a decent pre-season and we'll feel the benefit of that."
Perhaps the most crucial of that number to be back playing regular football is goalkeeper Carroll.
The former Manchester United player was an ever-present in O'Neill's first campaign despite spending the latter half in near exile at Olympiakos following a change in management.
He was still one of Northern Ireland's most consistent performers despite his lack of game time in Greece and excelled in the summer tour of South America, putting in fine displays against Uruguay and Chile.
Now back in England with Notts County, the 36-year-old is established as number with both club and country.
"There's no doubt about it, Roy is capable of playing at a higher level than League One but at this stage of his career the most important thing is that he is playing week in, week out," said O'Neill.
"The reports on Roy are very positive already and I went to see him myself earlier in the season when he was excellent.
"He is still an excellent goalkeeper, he's shown that with us, and now he's back enjoying himself and playing with a smile on his face.
"It's good for us that both of our other keepers, Alan Mannus and Michael McGovern are playing regularly in the SPL but Roy is in a good frame of mind."
O'Neill had intended to cut two from his training squad before flying to Budapest on Thursday but the decision was made for him as MK Dons midfielder Ben Reeves - in line for a first cap after his display in the giant-killing of Manchester United - and Hull defender Alex Bruce withdrew.
Reeves has a hamstring injury, while Bruce's wife has gone into labour.
They join Ryan McLaughlin (knee), Sammy Clingan (knee) and Stuart Dallas (leg) in pulling out of the match.