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Michael O'Neill hails supporters and his players as playoff awaits

Sun, Nov 17 2019

Michael O'Neill acknowledging the fans after the final whistle Credit: Clare McCahill (ETPhotos)

Macdara Ferris reports from Belfast

Both managers were serenaded by the home supporters in Belfast on Saturday evening towards the end of the scoreless draw that ended Northern Ireland’s automatic hopes of EURO 2020 qualification.

The match was Northern Ireland's first home draw for four years and the point was enough for Ronald Koeman's Netherlands side to qualify for their first tournament in three attempts.

The Northern Ireland fans were not being very complementary to Koeman in their singing in response to his quotes following the Dutch win last month when he called Norn Iron tactics "boring".

Koeman’s team were happy to play out for a draw when Northern Ireland pushed on late in the game for a winner.

By that time the home supporters had turned the antipathy towards Koeman to affection for their own manager singing “We love you Michael, we do” in the direction of their manager who will soon make the permanent move to Stoke City.

However, they haven’t lost their gaffer just yet. O’Neill will work with Stoke and return in March to lead his international team in the playoff for EURO 2020. He acknowledged the support of the crowd after the match by clapping the fans from the pitch before speaking about the supporters with the media after the match.

“The fans have been a massive part of what we have done here,” said O’Neill who led his team to EURO 2016 and a World Cup 2018 playoff. “Before, the stadium was a place when at times players and fans dreaded coming to and performances showed it. Now we have a great atmosphere in this stadium after the redevelopment. 

“Our players now love playing here and there is a really strong bond between the players and the supporters. That is really important that we hold onto it going forward whoever is in charge of the team. 

“There are loads of national teams around Europe who don't have that and supporters who are a bit disillusioned with their national team. We have a group of supporters who are immensely proud of the players and a group of players who are thankful of the backing that they get.”

Depending on the draw for that playoff (semi and final), Saturday’s scoreless draw may well have been O’Neill’s last home charge in charge of his ‘green and white army’. It could well have been a winning last match though only for Steven Davis to balloon a first half penalty over the bar.

“The penalty miss took the wind out of sails. In the second half we couldn’t build momentum and get back to that level. That is because of the quality of the opposition. They took control over the game in the second half. 

“It was a big moment for him,” said O’Neill about the penalty miss by Davis who is now just three caps off Pat Jennings all-time 119 appearance record for Northern Ireland.

“You can sense the disappointment. Steven Davis showed character as he continued to drive the team on. It isn’t easy at 35 years of age to play in the middle of the pitch against players who are much younger than you."

“We are in a playoff. We have a lot to be positive about. Whoever we play in the playoff they will not be at the level of Germany and Holland. We can take a lot from that.

“I just hope there is a little sense of realism in where we are bringing players in here to play from League One football and we are asking them to play against Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek who are coveted by every top club in Europe.

“For our lads to be coming at this level is testament to not only them but the senior players in the squad. Our team tonight in terms of club football, we have only really three players playing at that high level consistently through their career. The players deserve enormous credit.”