Norwood thanks boss Michael O'Neill for sticking with Northern Ireland

NI midfielder Oliver Norwood
NI midfielder Oliver Norwood

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 XI O'Neill deployed in Azerbaijan for their penultimate World Cup qualifier when a humiliating 2-0 loss summed up the state of Northern Irish 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 where one of their lowest hours occurred in a different mood.

Eight of the XI that started that night are in this squad - and Craig Cathcart and Jamie Ward are only missing due to injury - and Norwood believes plenty of praise should lie at O'Neill's door for his confidence that those players could change their country's fortunes.

"Five years ago, if someone had said how far we'd come after the defeat in Azerbaijan, 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.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

"You see managers going to clubs these days and losing their jobs after three, four or six months. As players you can see where they are trying to go with it but it does take time. I'm a big believer in that.

"Players need to get used to a new manager and to change their mindset. Footballers can be quite stubborn in the way they like to do things so that takes time too.

"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."