A fundamental responsibility of a football manager is to withdraw the best form from his players and mould them into a cohesive, well – balanced team, which is a description that aptly applies to Northern Ireland, under the guidance of Michael O’Neill.
Reasonable start to 2018 World Cup Qualifying Campaign
After leading his country to the Euro 2016 finals, where they reached the second round before being beaten 1-0 by Wales, O’Neill oversaw a typically determined and resilient Northern Irish performance as his side began their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign with a 0-0 draw away to the Czech Republic.
Although the game was a largely uneventful affair, during which Northern Ireland struggled to play with any fluency, they earned a creditable point, with that particularly being the case since a number of O’Neill’s players have not featured regularly for their clubs this season.
For instance despite a quartet of O’Neill’s starting XI in the form of Kyle Lafferty, Michael McGovern, Paddy McNair and Jamie Ward, lacking match sharpness, they each defied that to repay the faith shown in them by performing bravely to typify the desire to succeed and spiritedness which characterises the mentality of the Northern Irish team.
As such the 47-year-old’s ability to inspire such a disciplined, industrious and organised performance from his team is testament to O’Neill’s wonderful man management qualities, which enable him to galvanise his players to compete well against any opposition.
An expression of collective unity and defensive solidarity
That was once again evidently the case against the Czech Republic, as despite not carrying much of an attacking threat during the game, Northern Ireland produced a defensively solid display, with the centre back duo of Johnny Evans and Gareth McAuley being chief architects of that.
The pair has developed an excellent relationship not only on the international scene but also at club level, as they form West Bromwich Albion’s centre defence. Whilst the 28-year-old Evans has now amassed 54 international caps, McAuley, who is the former Manchester United player’s senior by eight years has made 66 appearances for his country, with the first of those being at Windsor Park in June 2005 as they lost 4-1 in a friendly against Germany. The reigning World Champions are another one of Northern Ireland’s 2018 World Cup Qualifying Campaign opponents, with the other being Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Norway and San Marino.
Ultimately the prospect of trying to reach their first World Cup finals since 1986 represents a significant challenge to O’Neill’s side but one which the will whole heartedly embrace, particularly given the involvement of players of the quality of Evans and McAuley.
O’Neill crafty creation of a competitive team
They are two of the most important members of O’Neill’s squad, which features players based at clubs in the top four divisions of English football and the Scottish Premier League.
Specifically whilst Evans and McAuley play in the English Premier League, O’Neill’s third choice goalkeeper Trevor Carson’s club side is League Two Hartlepool United, whilst Niall McGinn, who scored his country’s second goal in their 2-0 Euro 2016 group stage win over the Ukraine, plays north of the English – Scottish border with Aberdeen.
Another member of Northern Ireland’s squad for their draw against the Czech Republic was McGinn’s Aberdeen teammate Calum Morris, with the 26-year-old centre back being one of four uncapped players selected by O’Neill. The other three were Carson, along with Tom Flanagan and Michael Duffy. That provides a clear indication that O’Neill is committed to integrating new players into his squad so as to ensure it retains freshness.
Subsequently given that O’Neill assembles his squad from such a variety of levels of club football, the manner in which the former Shamrock Rovers’ manager’s creates and sustains a team that is capable of performing so well on the international stage is highly impressive and indicative of his innate ability to inspire Northern Ireland’s band of consummately professional players.