Michael O’Neill admitted Northern Ireland’s miserable Euro 2024 qualifying campaign was starting to feel like Groundhog Day as he urged fans to look at the bigger picture while he tries to mould a new team.
After Thursday’s 4-2 defeat to Slovenia on Thursday, it was back the old familiar feeling of a 1-0 defeat in Kazakhstan on Sunday – a fifth consecutive defeat in this campaign and the fourth 1-0 reverse during that run.
The build-up to the match was dominated by talk of injuries – Northern Ireland have been without as many as 18 different players during this campaign to date – and yet again the talk after was of a game decided by narrow margins.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) September 10, 2023
Maxim Samorodov’s 27th minute strike settled it, but Northern Ireland missed a golden first-half chance when Kazakhstan’s goalscorer tracked back to stop Conor McMenamin prodding home when Matty Kennedy’s mis-hit shot was rolling towards the goal line.
Although they did not produce anything like the attacking display they showed in Ljubljana on Thursday, O’Neill’s side still ended the game with more possession and more shots than Kazakhstan, but on the wrong side of the result.
“I think it followed quite a similar pattern for us,” O’Neill said. “Obviously the goal in the game is the only defining moment. We started the game well, we were dominating but our play in the final third let us down, we’re lacking a little bit in that area at the minute obviously.”
The absence of Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans and Shane Ferguson has been a constant since before the campaign even started, but on top of that, Northern Ireland have suffered a succession of injuries, with Craig Cathcart and Ciaron Brown the latest to join the list.
That has forced O’Neill to blood young players more quickly than planned, and meant a campaign which started with such optimism has turned into a recurring nightmare, the only thing missing being the sound of Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You, Babe’ heralding the start of each international window.
“It has been a little bit (like Groundhog Day),” O’Neill said. “This is our third time together as a group in terms of my time back in charge so there is a process we’re having to go through a little bit, which is painful.
“For a lot of those lads, it’s always nicer to come into international football for the first time and you’re winning games, it’s always easier to come into a team that’s doing well.
“I reflect back to the lead-in to Euro 2016 and you had the likes of Stuart Dallas and Paddy McNair come into the team and we were always going well. It’s always an easier process.
“Now we’re trying to introduce players into a team when the results are not so good so it’s more challenging for the players.”
The hope is that those younger players benefit further down the line, particularly when the day comes that the senior players Northern Ireland have leaned on for so long are no longer around – a time that may well arrive by the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign in March 2025.
“We just have to play through this period,” O’Neill added. “I think the team in many ways is developing. People may argue against that based on the results, but I have to look at the bigger picture in terms of where the team has to go in the next 12 to 18 months.
“We just have to persevere with what we’re doing. I think a lot of what we’re doing with the team is the right way to approach, but in this campaign we’ve had four 1-0 defeats and the margins in all the games have been very narrow.”