O'Neill urging NI squad not to settle for Euro 2016 exploits

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

Twelve months on from Northern Ireland's historic Euro 2016 campaign, boss Michael O'Neill admits his overriding memory of losing to Wales is still fuelling him today.

It was last June when the Green and White Army descended on France for the nation's maiden European Championships - and first major tournament in three decades - and victory over Ukraine in Lyon ensured they defied many people's expectations to progress to the knock-out stage.

Their time in France is therefore remembered fondly by many from the country, with O'Neill earning an MBE and his squad thrown a homecoming Belfast party which saw the manager hoisted into the air on a stage in front of thousands.

Yet, as O'Neill tries to plot through qualification for next summer's World Cup in Russia, he admits what lingers most in his mind about the Euros was the last-16 loss to the Welsh in Paris - because he does not want it to be seen as his squad's zenith.

"I still believe there's more in this squad," he said.

"I just want to see them not settle for what they've had.

NI skipper Steven Davis with Wales hero Gareth Bale in the last 16 clash of the European Championships last summer

NI skipper Steven Davis with Wales hero Gareth Bale in the last 16 clash of the European Championships last summer

"Yes we went to France, yes it was a fantastic experience, yes we did well. What I remember from France was that we got beat by Wales. That's what will hopefully motivate us further to go on and do everything possible to get to Russia."

Northern Ireland are second at the qualification's halfway point and on course for a play-off berth behind Germany, though they will be tested in Azerbaijan next week.

Conor Washington and Jamie Ward, their goalscorers against Norway in March, are missing due to a wedding and an injury respectively, while temperatures pushing nearly 30 degrees Celsius will also present problems.

O'Neill will take his team to Turkey to acclimatise next week and is not fretting over his players adapting, though the draw was certainly not kind to Northern Ireland when it threw up a fixture in baking Baku at the end of the season.

Northern Ireland's Aaron Hughes is dejected at the final whistle after losing 1-0 to Wales at Euro 2016

Northern Ireland's Aaron Hughes is dejected at the final whistle after losing 1-0 to Wales at Euro 2016

"This is the worst game we could have logistically at this time of the year," O'Neill admitted.

"If it's a home game, great, the players are happy, they're back here in Belfast, they're relaxed and looking forward to the game.

"The only thing that works in our favour is that it's a single game.

"But that's the way the fixtures came out and we'll have to deal with it. I think we'll be fine. I'm not overly concerned about the conditions. I also see in the players already that their preparation and application is really good."

Part of those preparations include a friendly with New Zealand in Belfast on Friday when O'Neill will not gamble on any slight injury concerns due to matters next week.

Defensive regulars Craig Cathcart, who was back training on Thursday, and Gareth McAuley, who is due to return from having treatment at West Brom on Friday, will not be involved while O'Neill is keen to assess those Championship and League One players who saw their seasons end weeks ago.

"I've known for some time the team I'd like to play in Azerbaijan," O'Neill said.

"The New Zealand game is to see where the players are physically. It's not about form really. If someone comes in and looks in great physical condition then it will give me something to think about; if they look below par, equally.

"That's the key - to make sure they're not undercooked or overcooked."