Michael O’Neill has grown fond of the security detail that accompanies his daily run from Château de Pizay, the luxury residence in Beaujolais that Northern Ireland call home for the European Championship.
“It has a presidential feel to it that I’ve kind of enjoyed,” he jokes of the armed joggers, although it is the date with Germany in Paris that will reinforce to the Northern Ireland manager how far he has come.
The Group C finale on Tuesday presents Northern Ireland with a formidable hurdle and an opportunity to reach the last 16 of their inaugural European Championship in stunning fashion. It will be the second time O’Neill has watched Joachim Löw at work at a European tournament but a far cry from the first.
After Château de Pizay and an overnight stay in the French capital, Northern Ireland will receive a police escort to Parc des Princes in their personalised, luxury coach before confronting the world champions. It was somewhat different for their manager at Euro 2012 when, keen to watch their World Cup-qualifying opponents Russia and Portugal in competitive action, he paid his own way to attend Germany’s game against the latter in Lviv.
“Me and a friend hired a car in Poland,” O’Neill recollects. “We flew from Belfast to Krakow – easyJet – and that was a great base for us but we signed an insurance waiver at the airport to say we wouldn’t take the car out of Poland. So when we got to the border in Ukraine we couldn’t go across. We were a bit stuck. ‘What do we do?’ That border’s not like Newry is today, there were checkpoints and all that, loads. We’d a brainwave when we saw a bus with Germany fans. Lots of people were staying in Poland and going across to Ukraine.
“It’s about 50-60 kilometres to Lviv and we approached this wee bus. My mate tried to explain what we were doing and who I was, so that we could get on. The Germany fans didn’t know who I was; I was only in the job about six months, so when we got on they started to Google me and ‘Northern Ireland manager’ to see who I was. I didn’t have accreditation or anything – I’d not gone through the IFA – we just wanted to go on our own steam. We’d our own tickets. I wanted to go to the tournament and sample it, see what it’s about. I wanted to see Russia and Portugal and I saw them both twice.
“We went to Warsaw, too, and Wroclaw. I saw some great games. It was a great experience. Now everywhere we go we’ve got police security – but that’s nice, we belong in this tournament. I sampled that one, now we’re in this one and we’re part of it.”
There may be Germany fans inside Parc des Princes who recognise their former travelling companion as the manager who, like Northern Ireland’s rise from 96th to 25th in Fifa’s rankings since the last European Championship, has gone up in the world these past four years. That Northern Ireland have a chance of reaching the last 16 owes much to O’Neill’s boldness and judgment with his team selection against Ukraine. The 2-0 win and outstanding team performance followed the manager’s decision to make five changes to the side who started the opening defeat by Poland, including the omission of his leading striker. His was a pre-emptive strike, not reactive, but O’Neill denies Ukraine represented the biggest call of his managerial career.
The Northern Ireland manager insists: “I didn’t see it like that, I didn’t feel that way at all. We had to win a game and we had to put a team together that could do that. I was always planning to play a back four in the second game, that was always my intention.
“Against Poland the threat was going to be [Robert] Lewandowski and [Arkadiusz] Milik and we dealt with Lewandowski. They’ve a front two. I was disappointed with certain aspects of how we played against Poland but we lost 1-0 … 1-0. Against Ukraine it was about getting the right personnel and shape. Jonny Evans went to be left-back and he was brilliant. I picked the right team. The decisions on leaving players out had no bearing on it. It was who I picked. Why we left out those we left out, it’s never personal; in fact sometimes it’s not even down to performance and in this case it wasn’t performance-related. The question I’d to ask was: what do we need? The big thing I felt we needed was to get some running power into the team and we did. The thing is, you can lose a bit of size by doing that. There are always many things to consider.”
The image of O’Neill celebrating Niall McGinn’s stoppage-time goal against Ukraine – mid-air in the rain – captured to perfection the emotion of Northern Ireland’s first win at a major tournament for 34 years. “I’ve had all the usual stick,” he says. “People sending me the picture with all the usual lines underneath. But it was great, a great night for Northern Ireland football. What we’ve to do now against Germany is keep the momentum from that performance and if we can, try to produce an even better performance that will get us the result we need to go through. If you can get through on three points then goals conceded or scored will probably be the difference.”
A second tournament victory since 1982 will guarantee progress from a daunting group for Northern Ireland. A point should suffice and even defeat by Germany may secure one of the four third-place finishes depending on results elsewhere. Goal difference, in the event of the world champions clicking into gear at this tournament, may also be something to consider in Paris.
“That’s the tricky thing with this scenario,” O’Neill admits. “Hopefully we’ll know a bit more about other groups by the time we play. Going into these last group games, only two teams are out – Ukraine and Romania. People said that the format wouldn’t work and that it would be a dilution of the tournament. But the third-place element has kept groups alive. I think it’s enhanced the tournament. If you get the top two in the group qualified after two games, then the third game can have nothing on it.
“It’s very difficult to try to second-guess games and outcomes. In some groups there are teams who look to have not many points but they’re playing the bottom team – we’re playing the world champions. We are going out to win but we must try not to lose. We are in control of ourselves, the other games we’re not in control of, we can’t do anything if someone wins or loses 4-0 or 5-0. The only game we can control is our game. We’ve got to the last game in the group with something to play for. We’re facing Germany in Paris. What a great night for football in Northern Ireland. We’ve achieved that goal.”
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