World Cup 2018: Northern Ireland rising under O’Neill’s Management

The rise of Northern Ireland since Michael O’Neill’s appointment in December 2011 has been remarkable. He inherited a team from his predecessor Nigel Worthington which ended the qualification campaign for Euro 2012 with four successive defeats.

As well as being beaten twice by Estonia, defeats to Italy and Serbia combined to leave Northern Ireland fifth in a six-team group. Thus, Worthington’s reign ended in disappointment, but that of Neill did not begin well either. He led his team to just a single victory from the 10 World Cup 2014 qualifying matches, as the Northern Irish once again ended a qualification campaign in fifth place.

michael oneill northern ireland

Despite the negative results, there were positives for O’Neill. Away draws against Portugal [1-1] and Israel [1-1], along with a 1-0 home victory over Russia, provided some hope and indicated there is potential for Northern Ireland’s fortunes to improve.

Although they amassed just seven points during their bid to reach World Cup 2014, Northern Ireland were given a rather decent draw for the Euro 2016 qualification campaign. Not required to face any of the strongest teams, such as France, Germany, Portugal or Spain, they took advantage of being placed in a winnable albeit competitive group.

By winning their first three qualifiers – as many as they had done in the two previous qualification campaigns – O’Neill’s side put themselves in a strong position to qualify for the finals.

After responding well to a 2-0 defeat to Romania by beating Finland 2-1 and avoiding defeat in their five remaining fixtures, Northern Ireland topped Group F to qualify automatically for Euro 2016.

The goals – seven in nine appearances – of Kyle Lafferty, were vital in helping them reach the ultimate objective of making Euro 2016. The great commitment of the players combined with the collective approach and team spirit, promoted by O’Neill, formed the foundation behind this team’s accomplishment. Each one of the attributes was again on display evidence in France during Euro 2016.

A 2-0 victory over Ukraine, courtesy of goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn, sufficed to secure a place in the last 16. Unfortunately, the end was marked in the Round of 16 following a 1-0 to Wales.

Despite the defeat, O’Neill kept faith in the squad and decided to regroup. He firmly believed the players were dedicated and competitive enough to help the Northern Irish compete for a spot in World Cup 2018.

That decision is proving to be the correct one so far. With their fine Euro 2016 journey fresh in the memory, O’Neill’s players comfortably secured second place behind Germany, in a group also featuring the Czech Republic and Norway. Most of the key players ply their trade in the English Premier League or the English Football League Championship.

Northern Ireland

A defensively solid unit, with key members such as Michael McGovern, Conor McLaughlin, West Bromwich Albion duo Jonathan Evans and Gareth McAuley, has been instrumental in Northern Ireland keeping clean sheets in all but two matches in their qualifiers – both defeats world champions Germany.  On the attacking front, the responsibility of scoring goals was shared by several players, with Chris Brunt, Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis and Jamie Ward, all having scored more than one goal.

Under O’Neill’s guidance, Northern Ireland have developed a good habit of defending well, whilst exploiting opportunities to score from set pieces. Their transition from the team which struggled badly in the Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 qualifying campaigns, into a team to be reckoned with has steadily evolved leading up to participating in Euro 2016.

Credit must be shared between the manager’s intelligent approach to focus on his squad’s best attributes while the players themselves have given their best on the pitch. The commitment of the players cannot be questioned. Will this be enough for Northern Ireland to overcome Switzerland and qualify for Russia 2018?

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O’Neill continues to inspire Northern Ireland

Euro 2016

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.

Five players whose stock unexpectedly rose drastically at Euro 2016

Group E Belgium vs Italy

International tournaments are being watched by millions of football fans, but also by every important human being in every club management. It is therefore one of the best ways for a player to put himself in the spotlights.

A bunch of internationals made their stock rise during Euro 2016, but the following five did so in an unexpected and drastic way.

Emanuele Giaccherini (Italy – Sunderland)

Italy weren’t expected to do much in France, but the Azzurri beat Belgium in their opening game of the tournament and went on to beat Spain before losing to Germany on penalty’s in the quarter-finals. Emanuele Giaccherini was a key player in Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 formation and has seen has stock rise dramatically.

The 31-year-old failed to live up to the expectations at Sunderland and played on loan at Bologna last season. He’s set to depart the Black Cats and even Chelsea have called. Giaccherini is most likely to end up in Serie A, but his goal against Belgium, endless work rate en timely forward runs have made him an unexpected wanted man this summer.

Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales – free agent)

“Without doubt, running down my contract at Reading was the best decision of my life. Reading wanted me to stay, but I felt it was the right time to move and take my future in my own hands. I always believed in myself,” Hal Robson-Kanu said after scoring a Cruyff-like goal in Wales’ quarter-final win against Belgium, as reported by the Daily Mirror.

The 27-year-old striker is a free agent after Reading let him go, and scored twice for the Dragons at Euro 2016, as he also hit the net in a group stage encounter with Slovakia. Robson-Kanu is hunted by many clubs, including a couple from the Premier League, and will make his decision soon. One that nobody could have imagined a couple of weeks ago.

Balazs Dzsudzsak (Hungary – Bursaspor)

It took Hungary play-offs to make it to France and nobody expected them to quality from Group F with Portugal, Austria, and Iceland. But they did, as Hungary even won the group with five points. The Hungarians drew against Iceland and Portugal, and beat Austria. Their star player, Balazs Dzsudzsak, found himself at the heart of their success.

The 29-year-old scored a beautiful brace against Cristiano Ronaldo and co, while showcasing his speed, creativity, and work rate in midfield. The former PSV player left Russian Dinamo Moscow for Bursaspor last summer, but he’s primed to jump to a bigger league like the Bundesliga due to the interest by a number of German clubs.

Marko Pjaca (Croatia – Dinamo Zagreb)

You must have done something right when Juventus, AC Milan, Napoli, and Borussia Dortmund are engaging in a bidding war for your services. That is the case for Marko Pjaca, who showcased his speed and dribbling skills on Croatia’s wing during games against Spain and Portugal.

The 21-year-old played just 103 minutes at Euro 2016, but made his mark in a big way. He’s primed to leave Dinamo Zagreb and is already being compared to Germany’s Julian Draxler. Milan look to have to upper hand for now, but Pjaca’s performances in France have nearly doubled his market value.

Michael McGovern (Northern Ireland – Hamilton Academical)

Only three goalkeepers made more saves at Euro 2016 than Northern Ireland’s Michael McGovern, who had 17 as his country made an astonishing run which ended with a 1-0 loss to Wales in the round of 16. Those three keepers were Poland’s Lukasz Fabianski (19), Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois (20), and Iceland’s Hannes Halldorsson (27).

The 31-year-old was the highest-rated goalkeeper of the group stages, according to Opta statistics. He was most impressive during Northern Ireland’s encounter with World Champions Germany, which they lost only 1-0. McGovern made a series of superb saves against the Germans, making his search for a club this summer a lot easier.

Can Northern Ireland stun world champions Germany in final Euro 2016 Group C clash?

michael oneill northern ireland

Northern Ireland lock horns with Germany at the Parc des Princes in Paris for Tuesday night’s Euro 2016 C clash, needing a point to all but ensure of their place in the last-16 of the European Championships. Currently third in the group with three points from their first two games, Northern Ireland are in a great position to surpass expectations in the tournament, but the World champions stand in the way.

Manager Michael O’Neill has taken the plaudits for leading Northern Ireland to the brink of the knockouts, and despite the challenge ahead of the nation on Tuesday, the 46-year-old is staying calm under pressure. Germany will likely need a win to top the group with runners-up Poland locked on points with the Eagles after two games, so they won’t be doing Northern Ireland any favours at the Parc des Princes.

The group is very tight between the two-three sides, as Germany, Poland and Northern Ireland can all still finish top if results go their way so it’s all to play for. O’Neill is relishing the chance of leading the country to an unprecedented last-16 spot in the European Championships, and is hoping for an upset that will live long in the Northern Ireland annals of international football.

“I don’t think there’s any tension. I think this is a special moment. If you’d offered us the chance to play the world champions in Paris where a victory could mean that we would possibly win the group, I think we’d have happily taken that. This is an opportunity for all of us to enjoy and savour. When we look back on our careers, hopefully it’ll be something that sticks in the memory for a long time,” said the manager.

“To make that even more memorable, we have to obviously try and get a result and get to the next phase of the tournament. It’s as simple as that. Going forward, we hope it’s not another 30 years before we’re wheeling out (captain) Steven Davis and people like that. We want to make sure our success is somewhat more regular than that,” O’Neill added.

With the new rules of the European Championships sees four of the third-placed sides progressing into the next round of the tournament, each group has stayed competitive until the end. And with Northern Ireland only one point adrift of top spot going into their final group game, they could make history with a win over the World Cup holders. Can Michael O’Neill’s side do the impossible?

Euro 2016: A Debut European Championship Finals for Five Nations


For the first time in the history of the European Championships, 24 teams will play in this summer’s tournament, following the decision by UEFA’s executive committee to change the qualification format.

Specifically there were nine groups, with the top two placed teams in each and the best third placed side, qualifying automatically for the finals.

Each of the other eight teams who placed third in their qualification group formed four two legged play-offs, with the winners of those ties advancing to the finals.

Subsequently the increased number of finals places available created a greater opportunity for European football’s smaller nations to qualify for the tournament, which some of them took.

To closer specify that, after staging successful qualification campaigns, set to make their debut at a European Championships are Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia & Wales. Despite being novices in terms of playing at the highest level of international football, each of the aforementioned nations have the ability to be competitive at the final. The following previews are aimed at providing an insight of that.


Built upon the principles of discipline, organization and resoluteness, the Albanian side are a combative collective unit, who do not concede many goals.  Specifically their defence was breached just five times in qualification, as they advanced from a group containing Portugal, Denmark & Serbia.  After creating one of the biggest shocks of the entire qualification campaign by beating Portugal 1-0 in Lisbon in their opening game, despite only scoring six more goals, Gianni De Biasi’s side secured enough points to finish runners-up behind the Portuguese.

As an industrious and workmanlike side, Albania’s achievement of qualifying for the finals was built upon a togetherness, spearheaded by their experienced captain Lorik Cana, who plays for Nantes.  Capped 90 times, Cana marshals a well drilled team, whose most technically gifted player is Taulant Xhaka.  The 24-year-old Basle central midfielder, brother of new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka, dictates play for the Albanians in a confident manner.

Drawn in Group A alongside France, Romania & Switzerland presents a daunting challenge for the Red Eagles but one which manager De Biasi will ensure they are prepared to embrace.


Competing for the first time at a major international tournament in France this summer are Iceland, who are jointly managed by the experienced Lars Lagerback and Heimer Halgrimmson.  Following the finals Halgrimmson will assume sole charge of the team with Lagerback set to retire.

Between 2000 & 2008 the Swede led his home nation to five straight finals and since being appointed manager of Iceland in 2011, has developed an organised, spirited and youthful side, that are not only defensively strong but also a potent attacking force.

The player most instrumental in driving that is Gylfi Sigurdsson.  At 26-years-old, the Swansea playmaker is renowned throughout Europe for his wonderful awareness, creativity and technical ability, which he displayed throughout Iceland’s qualifying campaign.  During that Sigurdsson scored six times, including all three of Iceland’s goals in their two victories against Holland.  Both results were founded upon defensive solidarity and cohesive teamwork, with those qualities also particularly evident during home wins over Turkey and the Czech Republic, to whom Strákarnir okkar (Our boys) finished runners-up.

As a well-balanced team buoyed by their remarkable qualification campaign which sent shockwaves through world football, Iceland have a realistic chance of progressing from Group F, which they will contest with Austria, Hungary & Portugal.

Northern Ireland

Set to participate at a first major international tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico are Northern Ireland.  Brave, hard-working and tenacious, Michael O’Neill’s group of honest players qualified for the finals courtesy of topping a group which included Greece, Hungary & Romania.

Whilst a considered and well-coordinated team effort to deny opponents the opportunity to build meaningful attacks has contributed to Northern Ireland’s recent success under O’Neill, so too has the team’s ability to score goals from set-pieces.  Specifically during qualification, nine of the team’s 16 goals arrived from dead-ball deliveries.

Whether in front of their own passionate and vociferous supporters at Windsor Park, or away from home, by playing with a togetherness and deep understanding of one another’s strengths, O’Neill’s side have embarked upon an 11 match unbeaten run.  That and their qualification for the finals is a remarkable achievement, even more so given that O’Neill won only one of his first 18 matches in charge.

Since then the former Shamrock Rovers manager has developed a wonderfully spirited team, who feed off each other’s desire and determination to win.  Also fuelling that are the goals of Kyle Lafferty, scorer of seven of the team’s 16 in qualification.

Despite the draw for the finals being unkind to Northern Ireland, placing them in Group C alongside Germany, Poland & Ukraine, should they be able to reproduce their qualification form they will prove a match for their technically superior opponents.


Since becoming an independent country in 1993, Slovakia have appeared at just one major finals, which was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when they reached the last 16.

Although novices in terms of competing on the elite international stage, Jan Kozak’s side performed brilliantly to qualify for their first European Championship by winning seven of their 10 games, including a 2-1 home victory over Spain which brought the tournament holders unbeaten run of 36 matches to an end.  Despite the Spaniards avenging that defeat in the return game with a 2-0 win, that was Slovakia’s solitary loss during qualification.  Subsequently they reached the finals by finishing runners-up to Spain in a group which also contained Ukraine.

The Slovakian squad features a fine blend of experienced players several of whom play in Europe’s top leagues.  The experienced quintet of goalkeeper Jan Mucha (Slovan Bratislava), centre half Martin Skrtel (Liverpool), Juraj Kucka (Milan), Marik Hamsek (Napoli) and Adam Nemec (Willem II) form the spine of an dynamic, energetic and technically sound team, who have proved themselves capable of competing with the strongest international sides.  The aforementioned qualification victory over Spain testifies that, as does the 3-1 defeat of Germany they recorded in their second pre-finals warm up game.

Given such positive results there is reason to believe Slovakia have a realistic chance of advancing from finals Group B, which they will contest with England, Russia & Wales, to reach the knock-out stages of the tournament.


Adhering to their Football Associations slogan, ‘Better Together’, Wales produced a string of disciplined, indefatigable and spirited performances to built a successful qualifying campaign, which resulted in Chris Coleman’s side reaching a first major international tournament for 58 years.

After losing a goal just six minutes into their first qualifier against Andorra, which they recovered to win 2-1, Wales conceded just three more times in their remaining qualification games, whilst playing with freedom and zestfulness.

The main driving forces powering that were the extremely gifted duo of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, who between them scored nine of the team’s 11 qualifying goals.  The most memorable of those was Bale’s smart finish against Belgium at the Cardiff City stadium, which earned a famous 1-0 win.  That result elevated Wales to the top of Qualification Group B after six games and despite losing their last game against Bosnia, they finished as runners-up behind the Belgians to reach the finals.

Whilst Bale was ultimately instrumental in that journey - as the Real Madrid star’s seven goals and two assists meant that he either scored or set-up 82% of the team’s 11 goals during qualification - many other players were vitally important in ensuring it ended successfully.  For instance, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, captain Ashley Williams and the aforementioned Ramsey performed outstandingly throughout qualification, during which the strength and togetherness of the Welsh squad was consistently evident.

Should Coleman’s players be able to carry that into the Finals then they will undoubtedly present a fine account of themselves whilst playing in Group B against England, Russia & Slovakia.