Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill laughs off Scotland links

all smiles: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill during yesterday’s press conference ahead of tonight’s friendly against Croatia at Windsor Park Picture: Pacemaker

International friendly: Northern Ireland v Croatia (Windsor Park, 7.45pm)

THE sounds that come out of manager's mouths can always be subject to interpretation but Michael O'Neill's laughter at links with the Scotland job sent out a clear message.

When the subject of his commitment as Northern Ireland boss, all the way to the World Cup in Russia in 2018, was broached, he quipped: “Is that a question or a statement?”

Yet he was not squirming or avoiding the issue, immediately adding: “Am I committed? Well, I'm sitting here now [in Windsor Park], I've been out there preparing the team.”

Tellingly, he insisted that he would still be in post for the next Group C qualifier, in late March next year, saying: “I'll be here for Norway, Russia's nearly 18 months away. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, let's just make sure we continue to do the job we're doing and make sure the team is as well prepared as possible.”

Asked if Northern Ireland fans should be worried about the Scotland speculation, he chuckled again, replying: “No, I don't think so.

“First of all, there's someone in that job [Gordon Strachan] who I have a huge amount of respect for, who is a manager I played under [at Coventry City].

“Listen, the fact I live in Scotland is probably a bigger driving factor of that than anything else, I haven't given a second thought to that at all, I'd rather not give a comment on that situation at the minute to be fair.”

That residency status also applies to key members of O'Neill's backroom staff, Jimmy Nicholl and Austin MacPhee, with the latter, a Dundee native, apparently in the running for the vacant role of performance director at the Scottish Football Association.

O'Neill was relaxed about that too, insisting: “You can't stop that. If people do well, you want them to progress. Austin's been a great addition, Jimmy and right through them all…

“You can't just keep people and not expect them to grow, their own careers may flourish. What's down the line isn't something I give a lot of thought to, football's about the here and now.”

The here and now is a final fixture to cap off a great year, at home to Croatia tonight.

Many players might want to skip a November friendly but O'Neill is happy that everyone left in his squad will be keen to play a part:

“[Against Azerbaijan] We had three players who are playing in League One, four in the Championship - they step up because they're part of a good team unit.

“It's a positive when they come here and play. When you have a situation where playing international football is something that enhances your career, that's a good thing for a player. If it's seen as a hindrance that's not a good thing. Where our squad is, it's seen as an enhancement.”

Some fringe players will certainly get a chance tonight, O'Neill confirmed: “The reason we took the friendly was to try and reward or look at some of the players that come on regular basis but don't get a lot of opportunities to play. You can't take chances in competitive games.

“For many of our players on the periphery there's always a risk [using them]. We didn't know if Conor McLaughlin was going to step up from Fleetwood Town to international football until we put him in the team - we were almost forced to do that.

“That's the purpose of [this] game, but how this game goes will have no bearing at all in relation to the Norway game.”

Tonight will be tough against a team that beat Spain at the Euros and currently tops Group I, with 10 points from four games, having scored 10 and conceded just one, beating Iceland 2-0 on Saturday night.

Yet O'Neill knows the result won't change the public affection for his team, concluding: “The legacy hopefully they leave is positives not just from the Euros but going forward. They genuinely want to go to a World Cup.

“I remember playing a friendly against Poland when there were 3,000 people here – [tonight] we have close to a full house. The players have created that mood in Northern Ireland. The reaction of people wherever we may be, that's nice, we want to cherish that”.

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