Michael O’Neill’s faith in bright future for Northern Ireland
Michael O’Neill believes Northern Ireland are moving in the right direction despite missing out on automatic qualification for Euro 2020.
The Green and White Army play their final Group C fixture tonight when they face Germany in Frankfurt - but attention is already shifting to the play-offs in March after Saturday’s goalless draw with Holland ended any chance of advancing directly.
“Of course we were in a position to take more points, but people have to be realistic with the level of the opposition that we’re playing against,” said the Northern Ireland boss. “For most of our players it is a huge step up, for us to get to the finals ahead of Germany and Holland, I’m not sure how many other teams in Europe would be capable of doing that.
“We have a route through the play-offs and the good thing for us there won’t be anyone in the play-offs at the level of Germany and Holland.”
As it stands, Northern Ireland look likely to face Bosnia and Herzegovina away from home. If Hungary can beat Wales today to qualify automatically, Northern Ireland could yet get a home fixture but the outcome will not be known until Friday’s draw in Nyon.
O’Neill plans to stay on and take charge of those play-offs alongside his new role as Stoke manager and is certain he will be handing over a team on the rise.
“There has been an influx of new players, relatively-inexperienced players who have been asked to play international football at a very early stage of their club careers,” he said. “How those players have adapted to that is testament to the likes of Craig (Cathcart), Jonny (Evans) and (Steven Davis).
“They have been the backbone of the consistency of the team and have made it easier for those younger players who have come in.
“I think we’re in a good place. If you look at our qualification record... before we played Germany in September, it was over 60 per cent in terms of our win ratio, so for a country like Northern Ireland, that is extremely pleasing.”