Michael O'Neill belief he can deliver on fans' faith and expectations

Michael O’Neill is back as Northern Ireland boss for the second time.
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In a wide-ranging interview, O’Neill offered fans full insight into the story of his welcome return.

Below is part one of the question-and-answer transcript – the final part will appear in Friday’s News Letter.

Why come back?

Michael O'Neill has signed a long-term deal as Northern Ireland managerMichael O'Neill has signed a long-term deal as Northern Ireland manager
Michael O'Neill has signed a long-term deal as Northern Ireland manager

Football is all about timing. First of all there was an opportunity.

"I believe I really enjoyed this job when I did it. I felt that was important and that at this stage of my career I would do something I would really enjoy and focus on and not just take a job because it was a job. With the nature of the Football League in a short period of time you can be the manager of four or five clubs. That didn’t appeal to me. I also felt that the feeling you have in club football to the feeling you have in international football is hugely different and not just going to a major tournament again because that’s what you dream about but just being back here and enjoying the job, being with the players again and building the squad was something I felt was too good an opportunity to turn down.

“I was conscious that the Association wanted me to come back, their commitment to me was massive which was a big thing as well and I was only too happy to take up the reins again.

Feelings about wanting you back?

“Of course that plays a factor. In football it is always nice when you are wanted particularly when you have just left a job.

"I just hope I can deliver. That’s the key and I believe that I can. A big thing for me was the conversations I had with the players. In 2018 I had a conversation with Steven (Davis) that was a big factor in me signing a new contract with the IFA as opposed to going to the SFA. I turned down a couple of opportunities at that point in time as well.

"Throughout that period in those eight years there were opportunities to leave but when I did leave I felt it was the right time and I made those decisions on the right basis in the same way that I have made this decision on the right basis to come back.

Do you share fans' expectations?

"Expectation is a good thing, and for too long we didn't have it. I think that takes the edge off the players when it isn't there.

"I remember having as frank a meeting as you could have with all players prior to going into the Euro 2016 qualifiers, and basically saying we are not just here to gather caps.

"So expectation is a good thing, but it has to be realistic as well. And all the other fans from the different nations in our group will feel the same."

On the potential of Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes being part of his coaching team?

“First of all, I haven’t had those conversations with either of them. I just need to see where those lads [Hughes and McAuley] are in the coaching scale, where they are at this moment in time, what their vision is and what their objectives are at this moment in time.

“I think it important to have good people around the players and the staff so those are all conversations that need to be had – but I can’t say at this moment in time whether it is the right thing or not.”

You shifted the mindset during your first spell – how did you do that and how will you do that again?

“At the outset, after my first campaign, I had to show the players that they could qualify because I didn’t think they believed that they could. We had gone 30 years since 1986 and everything.

"I showed them all the groups and said ‘this is what you are going to have to do’. “In my first campaign we were in every game but we lost games late, or we didn’t have concentration or focus. We were in strong positions and we threw it away.

"I think it is a mindset change from the players because we then started to see a group of players that could win games late, that they didn’t always do, could win games from being behind. Those were things that the Northern Ireland team were probably not doing a lot of. Hopefully, a lot of that still remains, it might need to be reignited a little bit in that situation, but, yes, you have got to deliver them a vision and a pathway – and they have got to believe in it. You’ll know quite quickly, then every result is another layer on top of that. When we went into every game, at home particularly, we believed that we could take something.

"The most important thing was we always stayed in the game as well. That is what the less fancied teams in the World Cup are doing now.”

Is it exciting to have the opportunity to build new relationships with players?

"I think there's nothing better than getting a young player and seeing him develop and come through.

"I remember Paddy McNair coming into the under 21s and Jim Magilton, who was managing that team at the time, saying to me 'he's not to be with me very long' and he wasn't.

"So all of those conversations are something I look forward to. I'm now hopefully going to be a positive influence on those players' careers.

"The real enjoyable part of this job is you have the ability to go and be around that (non-senior set-up) - because there's people there doing a very good job - and be familiar to the younger players.”

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