Monday 19 February 2018

Hungary scalp changed mindset says O'Neill

"We've gone from being a team that was in the game and used to lose, to one that is in the game, will be extremely difficult to beat, and can win," O'Neill explained. Photo: PA

James Ducker

As the 70th minute of Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier in San Marino on Friday loomed, with the game still goalless, there was good reason why Michael O'Neill's players did not panic when, in the past, they invariably would have.

One of the cornerstones of O'Neill's success in transforming fortunes has been the way he has reprogrammed the mindset of a side who were previously accustomed to collapsing in the final 20 minutes of matches.

Josh Magennis's 70th-minute finish in Serravalle, the first of three goals in an eight-minute dash that ensured that Northern Ireland will need only a point against Czech Republic in Belfast tomorrow night to guarantee second place in Group C with two games to spare, and move a step closer to realising their World Cup dream, was the latest example of that.

For the players who finished second bottom of their World Cup qualifying group in 2014 with one win from 10 matches, Brazil was the most distant of dreams. But O'Neill's psychological masterstroke was to show them that they were not as far away as they believed. If their 10 qualifying games then had ended around the 70-minute mark, Northern Ireland would have finished with 14 points, enough to earn them third place in the group. In the end they amassed half that, with seven points thrown away in the final 20 minutes of matches.

At the start of qualifying for Euro 2016, it looked like being a similar story. They went 1-0 down against Hungary in their opening game with 15 minutes to go, but rather than watch a draw turn into defeat, O'Neill's side scored twice in the final nine minutes to claim a 2-1 victory. They have not looked back since.

At the 70-minute mark of those 10 qualifying games, the Northern Irish had 20 points. They finished as group winners with 21, qualified for their first international tournament in 30 years and are now repeating the trick on the road to Russia.

Points before the 70th minute in their seven matches? Twelve. Points come the final whistle? Sixteen.

"We've gone from being a team that was in the game and used to lose, to one that is in the game, will be extremely difficult to beat, and can win," O'Neill explained. "Too often we'd say, 'We've played pretty well there but we've lost'. The Hungary game was the key. We'd played quite well but Gareth [McAuley] got injured and two minutes after he comes off we lose a goal from a corner and I'm sat there in the dug-out thinking, 'This is the same old story'. But something happened - the mindset almost changed in that one 20 minutes, and we kicked on from there."

O'Neill is talking in a corner of a bar at the Worsley Park Marriott hotel near Manchester a few days before the San Marino game. The Northern Ireland squad were staying there while they trained at Manchester City's CFA headquarters ahead of the first leg of their pivotal double-header, and during 90 minutes of conversation with O'Neill, it becomes all the harder to understand why no Premier League club, let alone Championship side, has yet to enlist the services of this quietly impressive 48-year-old from Portadown.

Speak to Jonny Evans or Steven Davis, players who have worked under managers as gifted as Alex Ferguson and Mauricio Pochettino, and they rave about O'Neill's man-management skills - but he has also proven to be a coach and tactician of considerable acumen.

Northern Ireland have the joint-best defensive record in European qualifying, with world champions Germany the only team to have scored against them. And despite having just five Premier League players at his disposal, and a glut from England's lower reaches, O'Neill has developed a highly organised counter-attacking unit that can switch seamlessly between 4-3-3 and 3-5-2.

Progress to the last 16 of the Euros, where they lost to Chris Coleman's Wales, did not bring the anticipated flurry of job offers for O'Neill but following that up with qualification for the World Cup just might, even if the man himself cannot be sure.

"Things have changed in the last five or 10 years," he said. "If you'd had success as an international manager, then you would have got an opportunity at club level, but it's different now and you have to accept that. Lawrie Sanchez got the Fulham job [in 2007] off the back of beating England and getting some big results for Northern Ireland but he didn't qualify for a tournament. Mark Hughes came into the Premier League [with Blackburn Rovers in 2004] but he didn't take Wales to a tournament. Look at Chris. He is still in the job with Wales and hasn't moved on after a fantastic Euros. When there's a foreign owner, do they really understand the challenge to get Northern Ireland to an international tournament?"

So when O'Neill saw the vacant jobs at Crystal Palace, Watford and Southampton this summer go to foreign coaches, did his heart sink?

"You'd like to think people would think you've done enough and this guy could be . . . but we're in an era where the Premier League has become more showbiz than ever," O'Neill says. "In many cases the coach is almost as big as the players. There's a brand thing attached to it. Not all the foreign coaches that come in have got a totally unblemished record, either. But there's very little you can do about it. I don't wish my life away thinking, 'Oh, there's another one gone'. I could go into a job and be out in six months."

None of this should be read as O'Neill being unhappy with his lot. He is as energised as he is excited about the prospect of securing a World Cup play-off spot and, potentially, a place in Russia. Northern Ireland will face the Czechs, whom Germany required an 88th-minute winner to overcome on Friday, without defenders McAuley and Craig Cathcart through injury.

But O'Neill knows what he will say to the players. "The players believe they can qualify for the World Cup. In the past, there's been a generation of players who went into these final group games with nothing to play for.

"They'd have hoped for a 'hammy' so they could miss them. Now you can't get a ticket for the Czech game for love nor money. This is what we want to create. If we could get to Russia, it would be phenomenal."


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