NATIONS LEAGUE: Michael O’Neill believes tournament has been positive for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's football manager Michael O'Neill pictured during Saturday's mornings training session at Windsor Park
Northern Ireland's football manager Michael O'Neill pictured during Saturday's mornings training session at Windsor Park

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill believes the Nations League has been a positive experience for his squad despite their relegation in the competition.

O’Neill’s side have lost all three of their Nations League matches so far, rendering Sunday’s finale against Austria at Windsor Park a dead rubber.

It has been a frustrating campaign, with Northern Ireland having 46 attempts at goal over their three matches but scoring just once.

But O’Neill said he had enjoyed the competition and believes it has done his team good to play alongside Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina in Group B3.

“I think it’s a positive,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the Nations League games, genuinely. It’s equipped the team well.”

O’Neill said he and the team have kept their focus on performances rather than results, so could take confidence from recent matches despite the lack of goals.

“The belief has never come out of the team, they just feel they haven’t got what they deserved in the games but they know part of that is self-inflicted as well,” he said.

“If you don’t take your chances, you can be punished, especially against teams with one special player like (Edin) Dzeko and (Marko) Arnautovic.

“To be honest we’ve been more than a match for the teams we’ve played and we haven’t taken our chances in games.

“We’ve good competition for places all over the pitch. I’m disappointed to lose the games but I’m not devastated or despondent because I think the team is progressing.”

Among the players who have established themselves in the team during this competition is Jamal Lewis, and O’Neill suggested the Norwich left-back was ready to play in the Premier League amid reported interest.

“I think Jamal is ready to play in the Premier League now,” he said. “He showed that when he played against Seamus Coleman, one of the best right-backs in the league right now, the other night.

“It will be fantastic for us if Jamal gets that opportunity but, as long as he’s playing, he’s happy at Norwich and there’s no rush for him to get to that level. I think he has a really fantastic future ahead of him.”

O’Neill has selection decisions to make for Sunday’s game, having called a number of younger players into the squad following the conclusion of the under-21s season.

Jamie Ward has returned to Charlton after suffering a dead leg in Thursday’s goalless draw with the Republic of Ireland, but there are no other injury concerns.

Gareth McAuley could feature after making his Rangers debut on November 8 - his first appearance of the season after starting the campaign without a club.

“It’s great to be back involved in the squad,” the 38-year-old said. “It’s always a pleasure to come and represent my country and just to be back and getting the buzz off football and being involved in match days.”

Asked how long he might keep playing for Northern Ireland, McAuley recalled some advice given to him by Sammy Morgan when he was at Ipswich.

“Years ago Sammy Morgan said to me ‘never retire’. Eventually you will be retired. And that is something that has stuck with me for a long time, what Sammy said.

“I still have the enthusiasm to do it. I like to train. I get angry sometimes but I like to go about things with a smile on my face. Pulling up to the ground there is no better feeling, pulling up at Ibrox last weekend I felt like 18 instead of 38.

“As long as I feel fit and able to compete and able to train every day to the standard that’s needed, then I will keep going.”