The former international defender discusses Euro 2016 preparations with HITC Sport.
When Michael O’Neill inherited the managerial reins with Northern Ireland back in 2011, the nation found themselves on something of a slippery slope.
Progression made under Lawrie Sanchez had started to fall away under Nigel Worthington and a new direction, with fresh ideas was sought.
Having tumbled to 88th in the FIFA World Rankings, the bottom of their downward spiral would eventually carry them as far as 96th – not as bad as the period between 2003 and 2005 when they sat outside of the world’s top 100, but a painful reminder of how far they had fallen.
O’Neill was, however, to steady the ship and turn it around.
He was afforded that luxury few coaches are given in the modern era – time.
The faith shown in him has been handsomely rewarded, with Northern Ireland now up to 29th on FIFA’s roll of honour and counting down the days to a first major finals appearance in some 29 years – and their first at a European Championship.
O’Neill has been rightly heralded for masterminding a surge towards Euro 2016, with his side finishing top of their group and tasting just one defeat in their 10 qualification fixtures.
Former international Gerry Taggart, a man with 51 caps to his name, is among those to have welcomed the upturn in fortunes, and he believes a lot of the credit for that has to be given to the manager.
Taggart, who was speaking at the filming of the Vauxhall Home Nations Football Show, told HITC Sport during a phone interview: “It’s fantastic. I don’t really think he gets the credit that he deserves, to be honest, especially over here. Back home, he’s lauded as a bit of a hero for what he’s done. The way he’s organising things is phenomenal. If you watch, we’re really, really organised without the ball, we’ll win the press, we’ll win the drop out, and with the ball, everyone knows their jobs. That’s full credit to him, he has just got them really well organised, really hard to break down and he’s got to take the majority of the credit for that, without a shadow of a doubt.”
How does he keep that momentum going, though, and what needs to be worked on over the coming months as the countdown continues to next summer’s tournament in France?
Taggart said: “I think he just needs to keep a bit of continuity towards the squad and the team, hone a few finer details in regards to the system he wants to play and the individuals he wants to play in that system. That’s what these friendlies will be about, he’ll just try and make sure that when he goes into France next year, he’s got the team the best prepared he can for all of the different scenarios that he’s going to come across, in regards to the teams that he’s playing.”
One characteristic of the Northern Ireland team that O’Neill will be desperate to preserve is their sense of unity, with their biggest strength being the bond which exists within a group free of individual egos.
Taggart said: “That’s the main thing. The most important thing for the lads is to make sure they know that as a team they are decent, it’s just about working on that ethos and making sure that everyone is aware of what is expected of them when they get to France. That’s what these friendlies will be for. Even though they call them friendlies, they won’t be taking them lightly and I don’t expect them to make too many changes. He may change one or two, or he may give people 60 minutes or 45 minutes bringing people on, but I expect Michael will be wanting to give people time from his starting XI.”
Continuity is imperative, and Northern Ireland are not blessed with the deepest of talent pools from which to select.
There are, however, a few figures knocking on the door who will, over the next few months, hope to position themselves firmly in O’Neill’s thoughts, if not in his starting XI.
On those looking to make a positive impression, Taggart said: “Corry Evans came in and did wonderfully well when Chris Baird was suspended, so maybe Corry is one that may be in the back of his mind, because Chris is obviously knocking on a little bit, shall we say. Corry Evans is probably the one player where he might have a bit of a headache. He was brilliant against Greece, he set up that pass for the first goal. That’s really the only one that I can think of off the top of my head that might stake a claim for a start instead of the XI players that have started the majority of the games.”
Evans is still only 25, one of a number of players in the current squad in their mid-to-late 20s, with there plenty of encouragement to be taken from the fact that Northern Ireland are littered with performers who should be approaching, or already be at, their peak.
Taggart said: “The lads who are on the bench at the minute, most of them are at a good age as well, and they need to be ready to play when called upon and are needed to come into the side. That’s where you may, on Friday night, get one or two changes. In the full-back positions, young (Shane) Ferguson could come in. There is some good talent coming through, with a good work ethic.
“All Michael has got to do is make sure that he keeps – I’m not saying keep them happy, but make sure they stay part of the squad and they know they are important, that they do get a bit of game time along the way in the run up to France. You can’t go making wholesale changes just for the sake of it because we’ve qualified. The last thing we want to do is go and make up the numbers, we want to give a good account of ourselves, so it’s important that there is some good talent coming through, but he’s got to make sure that he has a nice blend of that youth and experience.”
The next step towards France will be taken on Friday against Latvia, with another positive performance desired to keep the ball rolling and the feel-good factor flowing.
These are, however, exciting times for Northern Ireland whatever happens over the course of the next 12 months, with a nation lifted out of the sporting doldrums by a manager, coaching team and set of players all pulling in the same direction and performing to the best of their abilities.
Watch the Vauxhall Home Nations Football Show with Ian Wright, Gerry Taggart, Kevin Gallacher and Iwan Roberts by subscribing to Vauxhall Football on YouTube here.