Michael O’Neill encouraged by big-hearted Northern Ireland displays

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland displayed their collective spirit to extend their unbeaten streak to 10 games on Monday and manager Michael O’Neill expects that trait to stand them in good stead this summer.

Conor Washington scored his first international goal and 38-year-old veteran Roy Carroll saved a penalty as O’Neill’s men won 1-0 against Slovenia at Windsor Park.

That took their sequence without defeat into double figures, a run which has exceeded the country’s previous record set by Billy Bingham’s side of 1986.

Thirty years have passed since that team featured in a major international tournament but, ahead of their participation at Euro 2016, O’Neill believes his squad have the perfect mentality to face group opponents Germany, Poland and Ukraine.

“It’s a significant milestone for this squad,” O’Neill said of Northern Ireland’s record-breaking streak.

“I think you can see that in how they’ve performed. We’ve played better but the appetite to make sure we won the game, from the penalty save to how we defended in the second half was great.

“It’s very encouraging.

“When we go to France we won’t be the most talented team in the finals but our job is to have them the best organised.

“I think you’ll go a long way to find a team with as big a heart. We have to continue to develop that. There’s two games before the finals and we want to make sure we don’t lose those games.”

O’Neill highlighted Carroll’s penalty save as the perfect example of the way his players are now more driven and focused.

The goalkeeper, who had lost his place to Michael McGovern in recent internationals, had been researching penalties prior to the Slovenia friendly and knew exactly which way to dive when substitute Milivoje Novakovic stepped up from 12 yards away.

“I see it now at a greater level than the four years I’ve been in charge,” O’Neill added of his squad’s mentality.

“That comes with belief and success. I think they’re adaptable and starting to think about the game a lot more than maybe they did previously.

“The players are spending a lot of time with Austin MacPhee, who does a lot of our analysis, individually. It’s not all coming from me.

“The coaching staff, there’s a greater collective effort, as opposed to it being the manager all the time. I think that’s a healthier thing going into the finals in France.”

O’Neill will name his 23-man squad for the Euros following the next friendly with Belarus and the past two contests have given him food for thought after Washington and fellow newcomer Michael Smith both impressed.

“We’re getting competition for places - maybe in the past we’ve been too reliant on too few key players,” the boss conceded.

“As our key players grow, equally we’ll be stronger for that.”

One player whose name cropped up again last week regarding a possible call-up was Watford striker Troy Deeney, who said in a television interview that he was exploring his eligibility.

O’Neill was surprised that Deeney had put Northern Ireland recognition back on the agenda given he was unable to call him up earlier in his reign because his heritage came from a generation too far back.

However, when speaking on talkSPORT on Tuesday afternoon, Deeney dismissed the idea it was merely a ploy to try and tempt England to call him up and reiterated he is researching the Northern Ireland option.

“We’re looking into that process at the moment; there is a possibility,” the 27-year-old said.

“I won’t go into too much detail because, for some reason, people think I’m this really clever guy that’s using that as an angle to get the England thing. That’s what I was getting hit with on Twitter the other day.

“I won’t get into too much detail but basically there’s a slim possibility that something might be happening.”