Michael O’Neill: Was first stage of manager’s NI return below par or a reality check?

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Long after the final whistle had sounded at Windsor Park, the jubilant pack of travelling Finland supporters were still singing and dancing in their corner of the south Belfast stadium.

This was not in the script. This is not how a hero’s homecoming is supposed to end.

Before Sunday night’s Euro 2024 qualifier, returning manager Michael O’Neill was determined to play down the significance of it being the first home match of his second spell in charge of Northern Ireland – but the roar from the 17,900-strong crowd that greeted him before kick-off must no doubt have tested his desire to remove all emotion from the occasion.

Unfortunately for O’Neill and Northern Ireland, who were wasteful in front of goal, it was the away fans making all the noise at the end of a match which the Finns edged 1-0 courtesy of a scrappy, first-half Benjamin Kallman goal.

This, of course, was about much more than a hugely popular manager returning to a ground where he and his players have previously created memories that will last a lifetime.

This was the second of an opening qualifier double-header – which started with a comfortable 2-0 win away to San Marino on Thursday – and the first double-header of five in a group that many fans felt offered NI an excellent chance of repeating that O’Neill-inspired Euros qualification in 2016.

And, now it is complete, how can the start of O’Neill’s second reign best be summed up?

‘We’re asking a lot of the players’

Michael O'Neill watches a Conor Bradley takes a throw-in
Conor Bradley was one of Michael O’Neill’s best performers

While obviously disappointed, the former Stoke City manager seemed far from dejected, and indeed relatively positive, when delivering his post-match media briefings. There was something of a running theme throughout, mind you, and that was how he feels he is having to ask of a lot of players in his squad.

It was a topic of discussion that was on the agenda when he announced his squad, continued before and after Thursday night’s win in Serravelle, and was brought up several times again when analysing the defeat by Finland, a country three places above them in the world rankings.

It has been well documented, but can perhaps go under-appreciated at times, that three of his best players and certain starters in Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Stuart Dallas were all missing, while Corry Evans and Ali McCann would certainly have been in his thinking for starting berths.

That meant a number of members of his squad, such as Jamal Lewis, Shea Charles, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Josh Magennis and Gavin Whyte, had to either play for 90 minutes or come off the bench having played very little for their clubs.

O’Neill disagreed with the suggestion that the loss to Finland was a “reality check”. Instead, he simply described it as a disappointing result, but he was well within his rights to wonder how much better his team would have fared with those missing players on the pitch.

Perennial problem persists

Asked when announcing the squad for this double-header about what he can do to solve Northern Ireland’s ongoing goalscoring problem, O’Neill responded, tongue-in-cheek, that it has not been his problem as he had not led the side yet.

On Sunday night, however, Northern Ireland’s inherent failings in front of goal came to the fore once again, with misses by Dion Charles and Josh Magennis in particular proving costly as O’Neill’s men lost a match they deserved to at least draw, despite their performance looking disjointed at times.

Teams that have proven international goalscorers can often ensure they take something out of games even when not playing as well as they can, but Northern Ireland do not have anyone of that ilk to call on.

Yes, Dion Charles earned plaudits for his two-goal salvo in San Marino, and rightly so, but those were his first international goals on what was his 14th cap.

He missed two good opportunities against Finland before having a goal disallowed for handball, while Magennis also fired a great chance over the bar soon after coming off the bench.

As O’Neill acknowledged, however, “the front players we have are the front players we have”. He admitted Charles’ chance is one the forward would normally take and that Magennis would expect to score his when playing more regularly for Wigan.

NI striker Dion Charles in action against Finland's Glen Kamara
Dion Charles scored twice against San Marino but missed some good chances against Finland

Details not quite right just yet

A hallmark of O’Neill’s successful first reign at the helm for Northern Ireland was his attention to detail and planning proficiency which ensured he and his coaching staff were able to identify any opportunity for the team to gain an edge and devise a plan of execution.

One of the most tangible examples of this was Northern Ireland’s scoring rate from set-pieces, with O’Neill and his coaches working tirelessly on free-kick and corner routines that delivered a lot of goals.

The manager spoke about the importance of set-pieces ahead of the San Marino encounter, and how they had been practicing them, but the execution was sloppy during the game, with a few early corner routines especially not working. At least there was a plan, though.

This was evident again on Sunday night but, as O’Neill has pointed out, he only had a short space of time to work with the squad, is still getting to know a lot of the players and is going to need more time to fully put his stamp on the team.

Terrific teenagers and qualification hopes

You did not have to look too far on Sunday night for a pundit enthusing about the performances of teenagers Conor Bradley and Shea Charles, with ex-internationals Jim Magilton, Tommy Wright and John O’Neill among those impressed by the pair.

Bradley, 19, the Liverpool man on loan at League One’s Bolton, delivered another exhilarating performance at right wing-back that had the Windsor crowd on its feet almost every time he got on the ball and made one of those surging forward runs.

Shea Charles, the 19-year-old Man City midfielder yet to make an appearance for the first team, again showed why he was selected in the Steven Davis role with a display full of composure and calmness that belies the fact he is yet to make a first-team appearance for the Premier League champions.

The pair are no doubt a key factor in O’Neill’s positivity about still qualifying for the Euros, despite losing a game that he admitted he had identified as one that NI should have got points from.

“It’s damaging because we missed the opportunity to pick up points at home which is always important, but it’s not a result we can’t make up for,” he said.

“We’ll maybe have to win games on the road that people think were going to be more difficult. It’s three points lost, it’s nothing more than that. We have to prepare and believe we can get it further down the campaign.”

Win those games on the road and it will be Northern Ireland fans celebrating in the away end long after the final whistle.


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