International breaks are infamously a period of slow news in football, but even the vacuum of major stories wasn’t ample time enough for Northern Ireland’s achievements to get the desired coverage in the eyes of their manager Michael O’Neill.
“We got our customary 15 seconds on football focus, which we were delighted with,” he quipped sarcastically before his side welcomed the Czech Republic to Windsor Park on Monday.
Admittedly, a country of less than two million people is less likely to garner the attention of, say England, but O’Neill is probably right to feel aggrieved that the miraculous job he’s done is largely ignored.
Northern Ireland comfortably dispatched the Czech’s 2-0 with goals from Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt. Those three points guaranteed them a play-off spot in their World Cup qualifying group, and they still hold aspirations of toppling 2014 champions Germany and going to Russia automatically. This on the back of reaching the last 16 of the European Championships in France last summer.
It’s staggering how far the green and white army have come in O’Neill’s near six years in charge considering they were 90th in the FIFA rankings when he replaced Nigel Worthington.
The key to the North’s rejuvenation has been gradual, incremental improvement. In O’Neill’s first campaign, they put up credible displays against Portugal (1-1 in Lisbon) and Russia (a 1-0 win in Belfast) but missed out on the 2014 World Cup. The Irish Football Association were impressed enough to extend his contract though, and were rewarded with their first appearance at a major tournament in 30 years. In France, they recorded a surprise win over Ukraine on a dreary day in Lille before they were eliminated by fellow home nation Wales in the last 16.
Far from resting on their laurels, Northern Ireland have ascended to another level in this current qualification process. Competing against arguable Europe’s best team in Germany, they’ve almost matched them stride for stride.
Impressively, they’ve kept seven clean-sheets and accumulated more points than in their Euros group. O’Neill takes particular pride in his side’s defensive organisation. “How do other coaches view us? They can’t go back and show loads of goals against us. It makes other teams’ jobs more difficult.”
Another impressive aspect of O’Neill’s management is his knack of accentuating the strengths of the talent at his disposal – like he did with Kyle Lafferty in the last campaign. Even though he sang the praises of his current squad – claiming that they have some of the best players in Northern Ireland’s history – it’s clear that none of them are on the level of a George Best or a Norman Whiteside.
Germany arrive in Belfast next month and Jogi Low will be keenly aware of how difficult a proposition the North are on home soil. A win seems improbable, but they’ve made a habit of upsetting the odds at Windsor Park as England and Spain know all too well.
It will be intriguing to see what the future brings for O’Neill. He must obviously recognise that there’s a ceiling coaching a country the size of Northern Ireland, but equally, the right offer would have to come along to tempt him away. Norwich were allegedly seeking his services during the summer, but with all due respect that is hardly a job to excite.
O’Neill brought League of Ireland club Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League in 2011 and is now surpassing expectations at international level. Whether that is enough to attract the interwar of top flight clubs is another thing, but given his penchant for turning water into wine, there’s every chance someone will take a chance on the understated Portadown man at some point.