Sunday 30 April 2017

O'Neill plotting new fairytale

Northern Ireland boss wants to tick World Cup box on his CV

“I didn’t know what to expect after the Euros,” said O’Neill. Photo: AFP/Getty
“I didn’t know what to expect after the Euros,” said O’Neill. Photo: AFP/Getty

James Ducker

Northern Ireland face Norway at Windsor Park tomorrow when victory would mark another significant step towards qualification for the World Cup finals in Russia next summer.

Those who thought Northern Ireland's bubble might burst after reaching the last 16 of Euro 2016 are being proven wrong.

But the real surprise is that the man who masterminded their march to a first international tournament for 30 years is still around to plot another potential fairy tale in the making.

There were strong expectations of Michael O'Neill being poached by Premier League or Championship suitors last summer but a move failed to materialise and the 47-year-old offers an interesting perspective on how he might be perceived.

"I didn't know what to expect after the Euros," said O'Neill. "I had a lot of individual accolades that were nice leading into the Euros.

"But management has probably changed now in the sense of the owners, CEOs and agents. How much does a Chinese consortium understand about what Northern Ireland achieved getting to France?

"You never know how people perceive you. People say, 'What's his philosophy or style of play?' They have this vision in their head. But the idea is to maximise what you have. That's all you can do in this job. You can't come out with a blueprint for success.

"We have players here from the four levels of English football. You have to adapt to that challenge rather than just saying, 'This is how we're going to play'.

"That's where people may look at Northern Ireland and go, 'What have they achieved?' without possibly understanding what's behind it."

It is why Leicester City's interest in O'Neill when the Premier League champions were identifying a shortlist of candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri felt like overdue recognition of his abilities.

"Leicester were the surprise package last season and in many ways their success was similar to our own," O'Neill said. "They had taken a group of players that didn't have that expectation and gone beyond what we achieved to win the Premier League.

"They (the Leicester owners) probably saw characteristics in me that they thought would fit with their group of players.

"Leicester's success is built on simplicity. So possibly they wanted a manager that would maximise what they got out of the group last year and hopefully do it again. Maybe that's where people will see my strength.

Realistic

"I'm realistic. Maybe my best chance to get to the Premier League will be by taking a club there, like Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe have done."

Norway were O'Neill's first opponents as Northern Ireland manager five years ago last month and the outlook now compared to then could not be starker.

They lost that game 3-0, followed it up with a 6-0 thumping at the hands of Holland and, by the time Northern Ireland suffered a humiliating 3-2 defeat away to Luxembourg - who had not won a home World Cup qualifier for 41 years - in O'Neill's 12th game in charge in September 2013, the manager was ready to walk out.

A 730-mile drive from his home in Edinburgh to Southampton for a heart-to-heart with captain Steven Davis convinced him that he was starting to make a difference.

Whereas confidence was once shot, players would routinely cry off and games at Windsor invited so much apprehension that O'Neill favoured arranging friendlies away from home, the atmosphere and attitude among the squad now is buoyant. The job remains a stiff challenge, though.

With a sparse talent pool below the ageing nucleus of Davis, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Jonny Evans, it is little wonder that O'Neill has had a team researching the family trees of more than 100 players from the Premier League downwards to establish if any are eligible to represent Northern Ireland.

Like his players, O'Neill "would love a World Cup on the CV" and, if he gets Northern Ireland to Russia, the country's hopes of retaining his services a second time around might be slim.

"I've had the experience of going in and preparing a team to play against Joachim Loew, Fabio Capello, Claudio Ranieri, Paulo Bento, Jorge Sampaoli," O'Neill said. "Facing coaches of that standard has given me the confidence to know how to prepare my team to deal with those kind of challenges." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Northern Ireland v Norway,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 7.45

Telegraph.co.uk

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