Wednesday 21 February 2018

Dan McDonnell: World Cup qualification could secure O’Neill’s spot as League of Ireland’s most successful export

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill during squad training at Windsor Park, Belfast. Photo: PA
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill during squad training at Windsor Park, Belfast. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

If Martin O'Neill's Ireland succeed in qualifying for the World Cup, the influence of the ex-League of Ireland contingent will be hailed as part of the success story.

That's understandable given that the careers of key men such as James McClean, Stephen Ward, Daryl Murphy, Wes Hoolahan and the sidelined Seamus Coleman were kickstarted by their achievements on home soil.

The debate over the most successful export from the League of Ireland over the past decade tends to focus on players who still do their business in Dublin on big international nights.

Yet there's a strong argument for placing the man who will be in the dug-out in Belfast this evening at the top of the list.

Michael O'Neill has driven Northern Ireland to a new level since leaving Shamrock Rovers and if he succeeds in bringing them to a World Cup then his next move should bring the 48-year-old much higher up the food chain.

With the passing of time, the manner of O'Neill's departure from Rovers becomes all the more remarkable.

Granted, there is a bit of he-said, she-said over the manager's intentions at the end of the 2011 campaign where he secured a second league title in a row and brought the Hoops to the group stages of Europa League.

It's no secret that he was considering his options elsewhere and was keen to try his luck in a different arena, so it's possible he might have rejected any improved offer.

Yet it's also true that there were people involved at Rovers who were unsure about the team's style of play and were reluctant to give O'Neill enhanced terms.

If they didn't think they would miss him when he left, they were soon left to contemplate the manner of his departure as others clubs ascended to the top of the tree and the Hoops entered a period of instability.

They haven't come close to challenging for a league title since his exit but they are hopeful that 2018 will be their year. Current boss Stephen Bradley was part of O'Neill's dressing-room and has cited the Portadown man as an influence.

O'Neill will have different things on his mind in 2018 if he can negotiate a way past Switzerland and it would be foolish to underestimate his team's prospects.

Strangely enough, he might be able to draw on his experience from Rovers in some way as he enters into a two-legged play-off with a quick turnaround.

He brought his team to Euro 2016 without having to go through the stress of a knockout encounter.

But the order of this Switzerland tie is similar to his most notable achievement as Rovers supremo - shocking Partizan Belgrade to break the glass ceiling and get into the group stages of a European competition.

Rovers were at home first and came from behind to draw 1-1 before taking the decider after extra-time when the 90 minutes finished on the same scoreline.

It was the type of challenge that always seemed to bring the best out of a manager who was in the Scottish lower leagues with Brechin before Tallaght called.

O'Neill's strength has always been big-match preparation. It's not necessarily about the team-talk he delivers beforehand or his attitude on the day - the qualities that are often highlighted in any profile of Martin O'Neill.

The main observation of those who have worked with the younger O'Neill is his dedication to the detailed game-plan that is constructed days in advance and executed on the training ground.

When match-day comes around, the players already know what to expect. He has consistently delivered results with his preferred modus operandi and when he left Rovers and graduated to international level, he got to work with a better class of player.

Northern Ireland are cast in the role of underdog, but they do have a core with a lot of high-level experience.

West Brom duo Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley and Southampton midfielder Steven Davis spring to mind.

Like the Republic, they have an ageing squad who maximise their abilities.

But while Nottingham Forest's Jamie Ward suggested this week that a degree of snobbery means that Martin O'Neill's players are put on a pedestal while the North's key men are under-rated, there can be no escaping the fact that the ex-Rovers boss must spread the net wider to find options.

Martin O'Neill's panel is a selection of Premier League and Championship performers with Celtic's Jonny Hayes the only SPL representative.

League One players don't get a look-in, and Aberdeen's Adam Rooney has found his exploits do not count for much in the mind of the international boss.

Northern Ireland's squad contains six SPL players and a pair from League One. Linfield's Roy Carroll is still in the squad too.

Switzerland are a decent side but a weak group flattered them in qualifying.

Expect Northern Ireland to push them close with a manager who specialises in making the sum greater than the parts.

Irish Independent

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