McVeigh full of praise for O'Neill

Former Northern Ireland international Paul McVeigh is full of praise for the work manager Michael O'Neill has done with the current squad
Phil Blanche

FORMER Northern Ireland international Paul McVeigh believes reaching next summer's European Championship finals would top the heroics at the 1982 World Cup.

That World Cup is generally regarded as the high point of football for the North when Billy Bingham's side beat hosts Spain 1-0 to top their group and reach the second round of the tournament. But McVeigh reckons that proud achievement would pale in comparison to the current side qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals - considering the group of unheralded players manager Michael O'Neill has at his disposal.

"Back in 1982, Northern Ireland had top players like Pat Jennings, Sammy McIlroy and Martin O'Neill," said McVeigh, who won 20 caps between 1999 and 2004.

"Now, it's a case of up and coming players, so I think it would be a better achievement than 1982. Look at Wales and they have got the best of the best in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. We've got nothing like that, but what Michael O'Neill has done is get the most out of a group of players he has been loyal to.

"I've spoken to a lot of the players and they've told me the preparation is ridiculous because it is so thorough and nothing is left to chance."

Northern Ireland have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, but they would be within touching distance of France next summer if they were to beat Romania in Belfast on Saturday night.

Group F leaders Romania are the only team to have taken points off Northern Ireland during qualifying, with O'Neill's side having won their four other games. Romania won 2-0 in Bucharest last November, when full-back Paul Papp scored twice in the last 20 minutes, and McVeigh believes Northern Ireland have a score to settle.

"It's a revenge mission because it's the one result which has not gone our way," said McVeigh.

"I wouldn't necessarily say we should have won the game, but I don't think we deserved to lose 2-0 either. So we know what we're up against and beating Romania would be the biggest step towards qualification.

"We've got the Faroe Islands next in September and two wins from the last five games might be enough to qualify. Taking the three points to go top of the group would be huge, but beating the group leaders would be an even bigger psychological boost."

McVeigh admires O'Neill for the way he has approached the Northern Ireland job since being appointed manager in December 2011. The former Norwich man says the set-up is now more professional than when he played international football and that O'Neill's faith in hungry players with a point to prove has paid off.

"The team now stay in the best hotels and, for the recent friendly with Qatar at Crewe, the squad used Manchester City's training ground," McVeigh said.

"That ultra-professionalism rubs off on people. He told the IFA they had to match his professionalism off the pitch if Northern Ireland were going to be successful and it has worked.

"On the pitch, he has been loyal to players who have done well for him and that's all you want as a player. Look at the way he has treated right-back Conor McLaughlin, who plays for Fleetwood.

"He could easily have brought in Manchester United's Paddy McNair or former captain Aaron Hughes to replace him, but he has stuck with McLaughlin and it's great to see older or bigger players don't just trump others because of their reputation."


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