Saturday 24 February 2018

O'Neill backs united Northern side to shake off underdog status

Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

Jim White

Michael O'Neill got an inkling of how his Northern Ireland side are regarded when he found himself recently in front of the international press in Belfast.

"I was interviewed by the Polish media and one guy was almost insulting, saying 'but you've got players from Fleetwood'," O'Neill recalls. "I said, 'We have, that's true. But we also won our group to get to the Euros in the first place.'"

Even as he prepared to take his national team to finals for the first time in 30 years, the Northern Ireland manager does not shy away from the fact that he is heading to France with a squad drawn from with the second smallest pool of professional players in the competition.

Second only to Iceland, the smallest country ever to qualify, he is not over-endowed with resources. But far from seeing this as a burden, in the season of the underdog, he believes that might act in his favour.

"Let's be honest," he says. "Our lads will certainly aspire. We are going to be taking people more used to playing in League One, for sure. But they are playing in the Euros. If they're not going to run about for you then, they will never run about for you."

What's more, while the managers of his opponents will worry about their big-time players getting dispirited by squad life, with his workaday selection he has no such concerns.

"The other countries that are going tournament to tournament to tournament, I think that's a much more difficult situation for the manager, the expectation, and when you are a big player you expect to play. I'll not have too many disappointed players in my group. My players are just going to be delighted to be there."

Willing, organised and hard-working, his squad will channel the spirit of the season.

"We are the type of country no one wants to play. The expectation of Ukraine and Poland is that they should beat us. We have to turn that into our favour. Only eight teams are going home on June 23. We have to make sure that we are not one of them. And once you get to the round of 16, then the fun really starts."

O'Neill believes the spirit fostered over the qualifying campaign will carry his players through. Indeed he says his side have helped develop - and then benefitted from - a much greater consensus of support in a once fractured country, a consensus which will be reflected in the thousands travelling to support their team.

"Football was divisive in the past," he says. "The national team was divisive. The era I played in was divisive.

"Playing when the Troubles were at some at their worst moments, I remember playing at Windsor Park in games off the back of atrocities, and the atmosphere was far from great. The atmosphere now in the stadium has a real strong Northern Ireland identity. United, together.

"That's already the successful thing for me, the atmosphere in the stadium in home games now, we have changed the mindset."

As the first Catholic manager of the national side, the personable and ambitious O'Neill takes enormous credit for his part in developing a sense of cohesion.

"Yeah, I'll get the Syria job next," he smiles. "No it's not down to me. It's down to the players." Even those who turn out for Fleetwood. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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