Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland are driven by belief

Michael ONeill has steered Northern Ireland to the World Cup play-offs. Picture: Getty Images
Michael ONeill has steered Northern Ireland to the World Cup play-offs. Picture: Getty Images
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To the outsider, it appears as if Michael O’Neill must have a wheel capable of spinning gold from yarn in his Northern Ireland manager’s office.

Central defence notwithstanding, a far more modest group of players is available to the former Dundee United and Hibernian midfelder than the now departed Scotland manager Gordon Strachan had at his disposal. Yet, while O’Neill’s team is now looking forward to World Cup play-offs, this country’s failure to reach that stage has us once more looking into our navels. And, inevitably, looking enviously and covetously towards O’Neill who last year took Northern Ireland into the knock-out stages of a Euro 2016 tournament that Scotland could not qualify for.

Apart from the obvious fact that Northern Ireland have exceeded all expectations in their past two qualifying tournaments while Scotland – whose exile from major finals will run to at least 22 years – have only dashed them, Lee Hodson would contend the two teams aren’t so different.

The Rangers full-back has been part of the Northern Ireland squad during this golden period. He isn’t daunted by the prospect of his unseeded national side being drawn with one of Italy, Switzerland, Croatia or Denmark on Tuesday for the November play-offs. Such confidence is key and the ability to weave that into his team’s fabric has been instrumental in the remarkable impact of O’Neill, a man the SFA must surely attempt to entice to the Scotland post before they look elsewhere for a Strachan replacement.

Hodson, who qualifies for Northern Ireland through his grandmother, is also willing to point to more prosaic elements for the differing fortunes of his team and Scotland.

In qualifying, Northern Ireland lost three games (albeit two of these in the past week or so when they had already guaranteed second place in their group); Scotland lost two. Both countries scored 17 goals, with O’Neill’s men conceding only six to their Celtic cousins’ 12. For all that they might appear to lack, in West Brom centre-backs Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley they have a defensive pair that would be transformative in the Scotland set-up.

“I think anyone can get there if you believe,” Hodson said. “But Scotland were very close. They showed great character before to take it to the last, winning games and were very close to a play-off spot.

“So I don’t think there’s any great difference. We obviously got a few early results in our group. Maybe that was the difference – we took our points early on.”

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers suggested Scotland lack a clear playing identity, which may have been a factor in them coming up short. O’Neill has certainly given Northern Ireland one during his six years in charge. A period during which, after initial struggles, he has moved them 68 places up the FIFA rankings and took them to a first major finals in 30 years. He builds his team around being hard to beat, but crucially has the players to do that. Though hardly an inexhaustible supply, with a fair smattering of players from unfashionable English Championship and Scottish Premier League clubs in their ranks.

“It’s a small nation, we don’t have as many players as England to select from,” said Hodson, who featured in last weekend’s 2-1 loss in Germany. “It’s a credit to Michael that he has this group of players that he believes in and that he wanted to push through. He’s very big on how disciplined we are and it’s very effective. He knows what we’re good at and makes sure we play that we and that it is effective for us.

“It’s the same group of lads that were there previously when in the World Cup campaign [for 2014] we finished second from bottom in our group. We went into the Euros campaign, got a big away win in Hungary, went to Greece and got another result. That belief from winning those games meant we felt we could carry on winning games. The dream at the end of the tunnel is there to go to a major tournament. The lads started believing they could do it, everyone around us did and it’s carried on from there.

“As a manager coming in at first, it’s probably very difficult to put across how you want to play in such a short period of time. Eventually it clicked.

“We had that time with the previous campaign where we didn’t do as well then we started to realise what we were good at and if we do it well we are very effective. That’s what happened at the start of the Euros campaign.

“I think that momentum has just carried on. The belief from a good campaign leading up to the Euros and going to the Euros is still there. We have group of lads who are full of confidence. I think getting there and playing in a big tournament just gives you that belief that as a group of players you are good enough to compete on the big stage.

“Everyone is willing to die for each other on the pitch to make sure we get to where we want to go and that’s another major tournament come this summer.”

They might be forced to slay a major force to make that happen with Italy and Switzerland probably best avoided, and Croatia and Denmark offering possibilities for the play-off ties that will be played on 9 and 14 November.

“Whoever we get, it’s going to be difficult,” said Hodson, who has 20 caps. “But we are ready for whoever we get and ready to meet the challenge which is ahead of us.”

O’Neill has made Northern Ireland a challenge other teams won’t want to meet but countless, not least Scotland, want to emulate.