NORTHERN IRELAND: ‘Back from the brink’ - Michael O’Neill reflects on first five years

Michael O'Neill was announced as the new Northern Ireland manager five years ago today (Wednesday). (Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.)
Michael O'Neill was announced as the new Northern Ireland manager five years ago today (Wednesday). (Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.)

After a successful start to the World Cup qualifying campaign, Michael O’Neill will now be able to kick back and enjoy the fifth anniversary of taking over as Northern Ireland boss.

O’Neill was appointed on December 28th 2011 and looking back, the former Shamrock Rovers chief knows it could easily have been a very different story.

Michael O'Neill was a proud man after being announced as his country's boss back in 2011. Photo-William Cherry/Presseye

Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill was a proud man after being announced as his country's boss back in 2011. Photo-William Cherry/Presseye Michael O'Neill

Such is the power of players in the modern game, he concedes his future was in the hands of his team after a slow start to his tenure.

Northern Ireland picked up just one victory in his first campaign - the 2014 World Cup qualifiers - and finished second bottom of Group F.

That was the same position they had ended the previous campaign under Nigel Worthington - a place that led the manager to stand down.

It would, perhaps, have been easy for the Irish FA to see a future without O’Neill after such humble beginnings.

O'Neill with David Healy after the forward netted to earn a 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan back in 2012. Photo-William Cherry/Presseye

O'Neill with David Healy after the forward netted to earn a 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan back in 2012. Photo-William Cherry/Presseye

But they kept the faith, and the rest is history.

“When you take the job, you just want to make it better,” reflected O’Neill.

“It was difficult and I’m just pleased that in all of this and despite the success, the players always stuck with what we were trying to do.

“They stuck with me as a manager and they stuck with the staff. It’s hard to sell something to players when you’re not getting results and it would have been easy for players after the two years to say this is the time either not to play or to change the manager.

Northern Ireland players throwing manager Michael O'Neill in the air as they celebrate defeating Greece to qualify for Euro 2016. Photo by William Cherry

 / PressEye

Northern Ireland players throwing manager Michael O'Neill in the air as they celebrate defeating Greece to qualify for Euro 2016. Photo by William Cherry / PressEye

“The most important thing was that we stuck together and that’s what I take from it more than anything else. The success we had, we had together.

“The initial campaign was difficult for me and I think the players were delighted that I got a level of success and I was delighted that they got it as well.”

That measure of glory was more than Northern Ireland has enjoyed for 20 years. It brought a first ever trip to the European Championships for the ‘Green and White Army’.

It was an experience that will live forever in the memories of everyone involved, players, management and supporters alike.

O'Neill at  Photo by William Cherry

/ PressEye

O'Neill at Photo by William Cherry / PressEye

Could they, as a whole, carry that momentum into the new World Cup qualifying campaign or would there be a rough hangover?

“That was my biggest concern,” admitted O’Neill. “It’s a short period off the back of the Euros to when we came back in. Where would the mindset of the team would be? We had a difficult game to begin with but their application again was fantastic.”

The past five years have been a story of success snapped, against the odds, from the jaws of defeat, the present is a tale of a country daring to dream once more and now O’Neill reckons the future promises whispers of an even bigger party.

“A lot of our key players are 30+ but what gives us in our favour is they don’t want this to stop,” he said. “They want it to last. When you’ve played a lot of international football, you want it to last as long as possible. They’ve played through a lot of dark days so it’s fitting that they get these experience.

“The legacy hopefully these players leave is a positive one - not just from the Euros but going forward because of course they genuinely want to go to a World Cup.

“The memories of playing here (at Windsor Park) too. I remember playing in a friendly against Poland and there were 3,000 people here. We will have close to a full house and the players have created that mood in Northern Ireland. You just have to look at the reaction of players. We want to hold onto that.”

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill during the opening World Cup 2018 Qualifier against the Czech Republic at the Generali Arena, Prague. Photo by William Cherry / PressEye

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill during the opening World Cup 2018 Qualifier against the Czech Republic at the Generali Arena, Prague. Photo by William Cherry / PressEye

Northern Ireland fans too are desperate to cling on to these nights - they know more than anyone that they don’t come around all too often.