Oliver Norwood has thanked Michael O’Neill for keeping faith in the Northern Ireland players who have returned to Baku transformed.
Four years ago Brighton midfielder Norwood was in the side O’Neill deployed in Azerbaijan for their penultimate World Cup qualifier - when a humiliating 2-0 loss effectively summed up the state of our international football at the time.
With just two defeats in 16 qualifiers since - and a run to the knock-out stages at Euro 2016 last summer - O’Neill’s players are returning to the Eastern European city in a different mood. Eight of the side that started that night are in the current squad.
“Five years ago, if someone had said how far we’d come, I think you would have been locked up,” he said. “It was a difficult time, we were a squad in transition, not so much in a big overhaul of players, but Michael’s vision of where he wanted us to play, that takes time.
“You see managers going to clubs these days and losing their jobs after three, four or six months.
“Players need to get used to a new manager and to change their mindset as footballers can be quite stubborn in the way they like to do things.
“Thank goodness the Irish FA stuck with Michael after the first campaign and thankfully Michael decided to stick with us.
“After Luxembourg and Azerbaijan there must have been times when he wondered if he could get the best out of us but he believed in his ability, and he believed in us and he passed it on to us and here we are today.”