Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill happy as lower-league brigade make bold Euro 2016 assault

Northern Ireland manager calls on  just one top-flight regular but tells Michael Walker a France 2016 place is within his side’s reach

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The Independent Football

In a hotel in Edinburgh, Michael O’Neill is in the process of completing one of his weekly tasks. Last Saturday’s fixture list lies in front of him and two games have his attention: Manchester United v Crystal Palace and Port Vale v MK Dons.

“At Port Vale I’ve got Ryan McGivern and Michael O’Connor,” O’Neill explains, “and at MK Dons I’ve Ben Reeves, Will Grigg, another young centre back called Tom Flanagan, who’s been in our Under-21s; and Lee Hodson, though Lee’s injured. If it wasn’t for the Paddy McNair situation, that’s where I’d be – Port Vale.”

For the Northern Ireland manager, the Paddy McNair “situation” is not a problem. It meant an opportunity for O’Neill to go to watch one of his squad in a Premier League game. That, as he says, is not a weekly occurrence. 

Northern Ireland are one of the international stories of the moment. Drawn from pot five in Group F, they have won their first three games, two of which were in Hungary and Greece. The Irish are in a pot-one position, halfway to the 18 points O’Neill thinks might be enough to qualify for 2016’s European Championship. Northern Ireland have not been to a major finals since 1986.

O’Neill is orchestrating this with one Premier League regular, Southampton’s Steven Davis, who is a doubt for Friday night’s game in Romania. Jonny Evans’s injuries mean he has not played an international for a year. It is why McNair’s emergence is so welcome.

“If you look at us now, last weekend we’d two people play in the Premier League,” O’Neill says. “We had four who started in the Championship. There’s the SPL, then we’re down to League One – we’d seven start there.

“I record it every week on my laptop and a constant trend is that our lads aren’t playing enough.

“Look at our team who won in Greece – [Gareth] McAuley’s not playing, [Chris] Baird’s not playing, Aaron [Hughes] has not been in the team at Brighton, Kyle [Lafferty] is in and out of the Norwich team, Shane Ferguson is not in the Newcastle team.

“Of those who are playing regularly at club level, Conor McLaughlin’s at Fleetwood, Roy Carroll’s at Notts County at this stage of his career. Corry Evans [Blackburn], Oliver Norwood [Reading], Jamie Ward [Derby County], Davis. That’s basically our team. Josh Magennis, who came on in Greece, he’s at Kilmarnock.

“We’re asking lads to step up and they have. Conor McLaughlin’s played in all three games. That’s a big step from Fleetwood to playing against Georgios Samaras for Greece. The lad Conor faced in Hungary – Balazs Dzsudzsak – he joined Dynamo Moscow for €20m.” 

With, realistically, a maximum of 40 professionals to choose from, and with former Northern Ireland youth internationals such as Darron Gibson, James McClean and Bournemouth’s Eunan O’Kane declaring for the Republic of Ireland, O’Neill finds himself watching a lot of lower-league football.

“It is a constant struggle to pick games,” he says. “I’ve been to reserve games – at Burnley’s training ground I saw Burnley-Oldham. I’ve no problem doing that.

“I went to Burton v Chesterfield last season, on a Sunday. We’ve three lads at Burton. They obviously don’t get many international managers visiting and they thought ‘M O’Neill’ meant Martin O’Neill. They were extremely disappointed when I turned up.

“The fella on reception said: ‘So, Martin O’Neill’s not coming, then?’

“I said: ‘Sorry, to disappoint you.’

“Then only two of our players started. Then there was a double substitution on 50 minutes and they were both brought off.

“It’s a long drive back from Burton to Edinburgh.”

Having played for Dundee United and Hibernian, among others, Edinburgh is where O’Neill, 45, settled and where his children are in school.

Appointed in December 2011 as manager of the country he represented 31 times as a player from 1988, O’Neill saw his team lose 3-0 in their first game, against Norway, and 6-0 in their second, against the Netherlands. It was 10 games before Northern Ireland found a win and until the first game of this campaign, the statistics read: P18 W1.

The over-achievement since is a source of pride. In O’Neill’s previous job he performed a similar impressive upgrade with League of Ireland club Shamrock Rovers, leading them into the Europa League group stage and to games against Tottenham and Rubin Kazan.

Grounded, self-deprecating and sharp, O’Neill has explanations as to why suddenly there have been three consecutive Irish victories. “Including Romania,” he says, “of our last 11 games, 10 have been away from home because of the re-development of Windsor Park.

“And I don’t really look at the friendly results. In competitive games, we’ve won four, drawn four and lost five, so that 1-18 figure didn’t reflect what we were, and were becoming.”

What O’Neill’s players were becoming was “difficult to beat”. Although he carries the stigma of a loss to Luxembourg in World Cup qualifying last year – “easily the lowest point for me” – by the summer tour to South America, Northern Ireland were gaining cohesion.

“Playing Uruguay in front of 60,000 – for your young players, that’s great,” he says. “Luke McCullough of Doncaster got 90 minutes; Shane Ferguson got 80 minutes. You always hope that experience will stand you in good stead and it probably has.

“We were 10 minutes away from getting a 0-0 draw with Chile. Our back three was Hughes, McCullough and Conor McLaughlin. Conor made his debut – playing against the likes of Alexis Sanchez.

“So when we went to Hungary [in September] we knew we were difficult to beat. Now we had to find a way to win. And that’s what Lafferty has given us.”

Lafferty could not make Norwich’s starting XI at Nottingham Forest on Saturday, and he is yet to score for them this season, but the 27-year-old striker got the Irish winner in Hungary and scored one against the Faroe Islands and one in Greece.  

“Kyle’s absolutely massive for us,” O’Neill says. “He only played four games in the last campaign.

“He gives us a different dimension when he’s fit and focused. International defenders don’t like playing against the likes of Kyle. It’s not just his size, it’s his running power.”

Could Lafferty’s goals take Northern Ireland to the finals?

O’Neill does the maths: “After Romania away, four of our six games are at home. If after six games we could have 15 points, then you’re knocking on the door. We have nine, if we finished  the group with 18 and missed out, then I think we’d be  very unlucky.”

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