Manager has just one win in two years
6 September ~ Even the most optimistic Northern Ireland fans have to admit that prospects of qualifying for Euro 2016 – which begins with a game in Hungary tomorrow – are slight. Despite more places being up for grabs and some creditable recent displays against opposition such as Portugal, Israel and Russia, one win during Michael O'Neill's two-year managerial reign is a damning statistic. The prevailing view tends to be that O'Neill can't be expected to do more with what he has available and the decision to renew his contract after the World Cup qualifiers provoked little controversy or even surprise.
Not being Nigel Worthington undoubtedly helped – the former national team manager's subsequent record at York City suggests that a more abrasive management style can get results, but by the end of his four years in charge in 2011, Worthington seemed to have alienated most Northern Ireland supporters and pundits, not to mention several players.
With no glamour fixture or immediate prospect of fortunes improving, this Euro match will be a hard sell for the Irish Football Association. However recent games against Chile and Uruguay hinted at promising youngsters breaking through, albeit playing at reserve or lower-league level, such as brothers Ryan and Conor McLaughlin (of Liverpool and Fleetwood Town respectively) and Doncaster Rovers centre-back Luke McCullough. Supporters seem reasonably happy with trips to Hungary, Greece and Romania, any of which are beatable on a bad day – O'Neill's only victory came on such an occasion for Russia, who went on to win the 2014 World Cup qualifying group.
Of course it is more than likely that Northern Ireland will have bad days of their own against the other teams in the group – Finland and the Faroe Islands (again). If the team finish in the anticipated fourth or fifth place, O'Neill may then decide the dead horse has been adequately flogged and move to another League of Ireland position (he was at Shamrock Rovers before taking the national team job). If he does especially badly the only options may be in Northern Ireland's own part-time league.
Nonetheless, it must be comforting to know that despite a dismal record to date, there is no concerted pressure on his shoulders and no credible alternatives being touted. Indeed most attention in the media about the campaign ahead has focused on religious hardliners objecting to Northern Ireland having to play a home fixture on a Sunday for the first time, thanks to UEFA's strategy of spreading matches over weekends to maximise TV income. Win that game against Finland in March plus one or two others against higher-ranked teams and O'Neill should meet or exceed current expectations and earn crack at the World Cup qualifiers for Russia in 2018. Scott Harvie