Michael O’Neill urges Northern Ireland to stick to plan after Finland defeat

Michael O’Neill could point to individual and collective mistakes after Northern Ireland lost 4-0 to Finland in their penultimate Euro 2024 qualifier but the inexperience of his young squad played a major role in Helsinki.

Northern Ireland played well for much of the first half but fell behind to Joel Pohjanpalo’s penalty just before the break, and Daniel Hakans then doubled the lead three minutes into the second half before substitutes Teemu Pukki and Robin Lod added to the score late on.

Ross McCausland made his debut from the start only days after being drafted in as injury cover on Monday, and there was also a late debut for Michael Forbes with O’Neill trying to make up for the raft of missing players.

But it was a sadly familiar story as O’Neill’s men were unable to capitalise on early chances before being punished at the other end.

“We played very well for 40 minutes in the game I thought,” O’Neill said. “We had a plan to make ourselves difficult to beat and to contain Finland and we did it very well, I can’t remember them having any opportunities in that period…

“We created one or two half chances we could have done better with. Then the penalty, for all the work you do in the first 40 minutes you end up going in 1-0 down at half-time because of a penalty.”

Isaac Price clipped Nikolai Alho on the edge of the box before Pohjanpalo sent Conor Hazard the wrong way.

“Probably it’s a challenge he’s better off not attempting,” O’Neill said. “There’s not a lot of contact but there’s enough. The player wasn’t really in a position to shoot, we could possibly have been able to block the shot…

“I was really pleased with the first 40 minutes but obviously by 48 minutes you’re in a really difficult position.”

Hakans’ strike was in many ways the killer blow, coming so early in the second half. The Valerenga winger skipped through four challenges before exchanging passes with Glen Kamara, beating Hazard at his near post.

O’Neill was disappointed with his stand-in goalkeeper, but also accepted more experienced players might have stopped the run by fair means or foul much further from goal.

“It’s a shot that I would not expect to beat my goalkeeper at the near post,” O’Neill said.

“You have to recognise the danger and there’s points in the game where maybe you have to make a technical foul as they call it and we didn’t do that. I felt probably that was something that if I was to be critical of, we didn’t win enough of those types of challenges through the 90 minutes.”

When Finland then introduced Pukki off the bench, with the former Norwich striker scoring the third and creating the fourth, the game quickly went away from Northern Ireland.

“That has been the big difference, the attacking players some of the opposition have had and we saw that tonight with goals three and four,” O’Neill said.

Finland’s Teemu Pukki, celebrates with teammates (Roni Rekomaa/AP)
Finland’s Teemu Pukki, celebrates with teammates (Roni Rekomaa/AP)

“We’ve got a group of players where a lot of them are new to international football. This is their first campaign. They’re coming into games and the games are going away from them. As a manager I have to support them and back them.

“They have to learn on the job and they’re having to learn quickly.”

The good news is that this miserable qualifying campaign is almost over, with only Monday’s match at home to Denmark remaining.

“When you come out of a defeat you look at the game from a tactical point of view and a performance point of view but what’s most important as a staff and a coach and a group of players is that people don’t question your character or mentality,” O’Neill said.

“That’s what we have to show again on Monday night.”