NI boss Michael O'Neill upbeat ahead of Denmark visit despite Finland loss
Euro 2024 qualifying group H: Northern Ireland v Denmark (Windsor Park, 7.45pm Monday)
UPBEAT rather than ‘beat up’ was the mood music from the Northern Ireland manager ahead of hosting group winners Denmark, despite Friday night’s 4-0 drubbing in Finland.
Michael O’Neill arrived unusually early for his media conference, laughing and joking, declining to be downcast even though a group that began with optimism is likely to end with only points taken from the world’s lowest-ranked side, San Marino.
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“You seem a lot more down about it than me – it’ll be all right, lads!,” said the 54-year-old. “Christmas is round the corner. We’ll be able to deal with it.
“We’re playing at home against a really good team. We’re not getting the chance to go to a major tournament so let’s give a really good account of ourselves that breeds a bit of positivity and hope into all you guys as well as everybody else.”
NI had a last-gasp leveller ruled out in Copenhagen back in June and suffered four more 1-0 losses in this campaign, but there were no straws to clutch at after the hammering in Helsinki, albeit that the visitors were yet again weakened by injuries and suspension.
Even so, O’Neill was insistent that the overall picture isn’t as bleak as it might appear: “Listen, I’m not traumatised or anything – I’ll be all right! You make it sound like I’ve been in a car crash, it’s not like that.
“In football you consistently move on to the next game. I can look beyond the results. Drawing a line under it won’t make it any better…We’re just in a process in the development of a team here.
“This is another game. There’ll be a lot to take from this campaign. We’ll meet and reflect afterwards as a coaching staff.”
On the upside, defensive midfielder Shea Charles will be available again after missing the Finland game through suspension, and O’Neill named him as one of the bright spots of an otherwise gloomy group:
“The positives are the emergence of a number of young players. If you look at the game-time particularly of Trai Hume, Shea Charles, Isaac Price, we’ve seen Dale [Taylor] play as well.
“We would have seen a lot more of Conor Bradley, I think we forget a bit – we talk about the older players being missing, but Conor not being available has been a big blow to us as well. This is a campaign that he’d have emerged in.
“You’ve five or six players under the age of 21. The positive is they’ve played in this campaign. The only thing I regret, particularly in Conor’s situation, that he hasn’t played eight or nine times; Shea will have started nine out of 10 games, missing one through suspension. Isaac has played a lot too. Those are the real positives.
“The other positives you don’t really see, because they involve players getting used to working as we want to work as a staff, and a lot of things that at this minute in time aren’t that evident because people will look at the group and the results. But I do believe the team has grown, despite the result on Friday night.”
There’s still a massive gap between the club experience of most of his players and the international stage, though, O’Neill acknowledges:
“It’s hugely different. The biggest thing is also the concentration levels, for younger players coming in, particularly attacking players - they are natural footballers and want to play but you have to tell them they aren’t going to get as many opportunities.
“Ross [McCausland] is a good example. He’s come into a team at Rangers who, other than when they play Celtic, will have 65% to 70% of the ball and he’s now come into a team who will have 30% to 35% of the ball so he’s going to have to do a lot more without the ball. That’s the challenge for them.
“What is required from them is totally different to what they need at their club and that’s what they have to learn. They have to come away from the mindset of ‘This is how I do it at my club’.
“That doesn’t matter, you’re not at you’re not at your club anymore. You have to learn in this type of team and this type of structure because that’s what we believe will help us win games at this level.”
In all probability, though, an eighth defeat in this group will ensue, with NI having to look further to the future for optimism.