Northern Ireland: Michael O’Neill wants ‘Budapest moment’ to ignite campaign

Kyle Lafferty celebrates
Kyle Lafferty scored a late winner away to Hungary to kickstart Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign
Date: Thursday, 7 September Kick-off:19:45 BST Venue: Stozice Stadium, Ljubljana
Coverage: Listen live on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio Ulster; live text and report on BBC Sport website; highlights on BBC One Northern Ireland & BBC iPlayer on Thursday at 22:40 BST

A famous win against the odds on a September night on the road. We’ve seen it before, and now Michael O’Neill has called for it once again.

Northern Ireland’s late win away to Hungary in 2014 kickstarted the unforgettable journey to Euro 2016.

While qualification for Euro 2024, in O’Neill’s second tenure, still feels a long way away even with a victory over Slovenia on Thursday, NI’s manager is craving that spark to ignite a new adventure.

The Euro 2024 campaign has been one of frustration as O’Neill’s injury-hit side have lost against Finland, Denmark and Kazakhstan – all by one-goal margins.

The sole victory has come against minnows San Marino, where anything other than three points would have been totally unacceptable.

Going into Thursday’s match in Ljubljana, O’Neill wants to inspire his players to another magic moment.

“I think this is a winnable game,” said the 54-year-old.

“No international game away from home is easy to win, and this group of players have to get that mentality.

“It is a new group for me to work with in a lot of areas. We are capable of going back to previously, in 2016 and 2018 qualification campaigns where we were able to go away form home and win games.

“That’s something that this group of players [can do]. You have to start it somewhere and we started away back in Budapest.

“It takes something like that to maybe ignite a little run of confidence and form and this is as good a place as any to start.”

If Northern Ireland are to do it, they will have to against the odds with 10 senior players missing – including the experienced Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas and Corry Evans – and another doubtful in the form of Daniel Ballard.

That would hurt any nation, but it’s only further impacts on a player pool as small as Northern Ireland’s.

“The job has been challenging since I came back into the role, primarily because I had a team in my head that I was going to able to play,” O’Neill added.

“That had a lot of experienced players who have been with me in my previous time in the job.

“I have had to adapt to the players, we are very young in areas and inexperienced in areas, even some of the older players haven’t had a lot of international experience.

“We had a very battle-hardened international team who had a lot of caps.

“We don’t have that range of players that we previously had, but what we have to do is build a team again, but it doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to challenge for qualification as we build a team.

“Equally, the players we have absent, we would like to have a number of them back. At this moment in time, with the younger players that we have, there is a different dynamic to the team.

“We will pick a team that will have a lot of energy and a team that is game-ready to play, based on where the lads are.”

‘We want something to play for’

Injury-hit Northern Ireland have won only one of their four qualifiers
Injury-hit Northern Ireland have won only one of their four qualifiers

Despite their lowly position in fifth place, two victories on the road would launch O’Neill’s side back into contention.

“We look at the table and we are six points off the automatic positions,” he added.

“We haven’t been outplayed in any of the games, we unfortunately came out on the wrong side of the scoreline and we are disappointed with the goals that we have lost, but we are just reiterating that to the players.

“Finland have conceded three goals, the same as us. We have conceded the least amount of goals in the group, and they are top while we unfortunately sit fifth at the moment.

“It’s at the other end where we have not taken the chances at key moments, at important times in the games.

“Our objective is to try and make sure that we go into the final two games of the group with something to play for. Even if that means we are dependant on other results going our way.

“We’re not in control of that, we have to control what we can over the next four games.

“If we can come out of this [away double-header] and have closed the gap points-wise on the teams above us, then I think we can go into the last four games of the campaign – three of which are at home – with a real objective of something to play for.”

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