O’Neill looking to the future
Michael O’Neill may have just one more match on his current contract as Northern Ireland manager but he is plotting a brighter future with the national side. O’Neill has had to swallow some dreadful results in recent weeks, with back-to-back defeats in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan particularly galling. August’s win over Russia, which briefly had the feel of a watershed, represents his only victory in 13 matches but he retains the support of the Irish Football Association, who appear keen to continue talks over a new deal after Tuesday’s final World Cup qualifier in Israel. Press Association He has also been trying to encourage a sea change in the way Northern Ireland’s international football is administered, and having been at the task for almost two years he has a stark warning that there is plenty more still to do. “I think people sometimes overlook the size of the country we are and the number of players we have to choose from,” he said. “We have to put a structure in place that allows us to develop international teams because I think it’s fair to say we don’t have that at this minute in time. “Looking at the ones who have come in to the squad in this campaign, Shane Ferguson and Danny Lafferty are the only homegrown players – the rest have come through eligibility. That’s something as an association and as a country we need to address pretty dramatically.” O’Neill was handed an initial two-year deal when he succeeded Nigel Worthington and when asked if that was ever likely to be enough, he answered, with a smile: “If I look at other countries around the world I would say it’s about a 25-year job.” O’Neill is without suspended trio Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Oliver Norwood for the match, and will also freshen up his side in a bid to battle tiredness. But he is in no mood to ring the changes simply to make a point. “We have to look at the fatigue element,” he said. “Our performances in the second game (of a double header) have sometimes been a bit leggy and weary and that comes into selection. “But the players who come in must be game ready, that’s essential. “Everyone wants to play but you can’t just throw caps around.” That match is O’Neill’s primary focus, but he is also happy to consider new challenges with the squad. Asked if he had the appetite to continue, he said: “That has never changed. Never. That’s for another day though. “It’s the last game of the campaign, I hadn’t really looked at it from the point of view of the contract. “You either believe in the players or you don’t and I believe that given time with this group of players they will start to get the results their performances have deserved. “I know the fans will feel the disappointment the way I do and the way the players do but hopefully they’ve seen some green shoots through the campaign and can see that this is a team that can develop into one that will give them more big nights like Russia and more chance of qualifying in the future. “Going forward if I was to be in charge of the team I’d be better equipped, but if we’re honest it will essentially be the same group of players. “There’s not a huge amount of players who aren’t in the squad who really should be in it.” The issue of Northern Ireland’s limited player pool is just one that O’Neill has been attending to outside of the more visible task of putting points on the board in Group F.