Football/Soccer

Patience pays off for Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill during a celebration send-off before the team left for Euro 2016

MY BABY sister is married to a man whose surname is Patience. How we chuckled about that.

When they went on holiday to France a few years ago a local man told them ‘We also have that word… It means…[lengthy, lengthy pause]… ze long wait.’ He was being entirely serious, but cue more laughter.

‘Ze long wait’ is almost over for Northern Ireland, as they head into their first tournament for 30 years, in France, funnily enough. It’s a reward for much hard work by the manager Michael O’Neill and the squad he has assembled after four years in charge.

It’s also a reward for the patience shown by the Irish Football Association. They could have panicked ahead of the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 and decided to get rid of a manager who had overseen just ONE win in 18 matches, a run that included 10 defeats.

Northern Ireland were on a run/stagger of eight matches without a win ahead of Euro 2016 qualifying, and had only scored once in their last six games. They had failed to beat Cyprus, Malta, Azerbaijan, and Luxembourg - indeed there were losses against those last two-named.

The 3-2 defeat by Luxembourg, on September 11 2013, was probably the low point of O’Neill’s managerial career. It was the Grand Duchy team’s first win in 44 home World Cup qualifiers.

I’d written my weekly column ahead of that Tuesday evening match, including the following caveat: “No matter what the scoreline was in Luxembourg last night – outcome unknown at the time of writing – it’s obvious that O’Neill should be given a contract extension, with his two-year term due to expire just before the end of this year.

“Even the Irish Football Association, who have more ability to shoot themselves in the feet than shoot into an empty net, surely will not mess up this opportunity to secure the services of a very talented young manager. The only decision the IFA really has to make is about the length of contract to offer him.”

Understandably I received some mockery about that from so-called mates on the back of that embarrassing defeat in the Stade Josy Barthel, but it’s a column I’m prouder of than most others.

My assessment then was that “his teams are set up smartly, well-organised defensively, but there’s also plenty of attacking intent”, adding that “the future still seems bright, or at least brighter, for the north under Michael O’Neill. Northern Ireland managers always need to maximise their limited resources and he has been doing that”.

Looking ahead to Euro 2016 qualifying, and the expansion to 24 teams, I concluded that “Northern Ireland should fancy their chances in that scenario”. The sub-editor who designed the page went with the sub-head: “O’Neill can lead north to Euro finals in 2016”.

Few, if any, would have predicted the scale of transformation that Michael O’Neill has overseen. The second half of his tenure, the 17 matches since those terribly tough first 18, has brought nine victories and just two defeats, with only one in a competitive outing, away to Romania.

It’s fitting that this month he has achieved his country’s highest ever Fifa ranking, currently at 25 – 17th in the Uefa standings. He has also ended the appalling record in friendlies, having gone 23 such games without a win; they’ve now won three of their last five, drawing the other two.

Veteran goalkeeper Roy Carroll knows how situations can change for the better and he commented this week: “It’s taken Michael two years to turn things around and look at the results. We are at a major tournament.”

Carroll had no doubt that patience was a key factor: “You don’t see managers given time in club football. Even in League One, League Two there are managers getting sacked left, right and centre.

“He had the time, he has another four-year contract… Contracts aren’t worth much these days but Michael is a great manager.”

O’Neill has always impressed with his attention to detail. When some other previous NI bosses were asked about the opposition, their response would be some guff or bluff after their best-known player and a cliché about their style of play, depending on the region they were from.

O’Neill, though, replies in forensic detail, even to foreign journalists, aware of formations, injuries, who’s been playing well, who’s in and out. He clearly does his homework.

The improvement has been exception, though. In the last 17 matches, NI have only once conceded more than once (if that makes sense), in the 2-0 defeat away to Romania, when they were without skipper Steven Davis and Jonny Evans due to injuries. They’ve only let in 11 goals during those 17 games, scoring 23.

Funnily enough, the back page of our paper the day after that column of mine carried the list of front-runners for the Republic of Ireland job, and those canny old bookies had Martin O’Neill as the short-priced (11/10) favourite.

In that column I’d put a different sort of caveat about the elder O’Neill, suggesting that “his teams, certainly in England, tended to play functional football, 4-4-2, lacking flair”.

However, I did point out that “At least Martin O’Neill is renowned as a man-manager… an excellent communicator and can bring the best out of limited talent…” The former Northern Ireland captain has done very well too in leading the Republic to the Euros.

This time they’re joined by their northern neighbours though. If most NI supporters are honest, the absence from tournaments has felt worse because the Republic of Ireland have been at four since Northern Ireland’s appearance at Mexico ’86: Euro ’88, Italia ’90, USA ‘9’94, and the last Euros, in Poland and Ukraine.

Northern Ireland’s only possible gripe about the expanded format is that, in a sense it’s, ahem, galling to have to progress from their group in order to be in Europe’s top 16, having finished top in qualifying.

They deserve their place in the top 16, but whether or not Northern Ireland get there they – and Michael O’Neill – have already had the last laugh. The IFA too, under the calm, assured leadership of President Jim Shaw.

Patience has paid off. Ze long wait is almost up.

Football/Soccer

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