Football

Michael O'Neill's success story as Northern Ireland manager is one to behold

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Seven months into Michael O'Neill's managerial reign, Northern Ireland were at a low of 129th in the FIFA World Rankings - three years later, they sit 35th with their qualification for the European Championships in France next year secured.

While all the credit cannot be attributed to the manager alone, he deserves a large chunk of it. In September 2013, following a 3-2 loss in Luxembourg, performance levels were alarmingly poor.

Yet two years on, Thursday night's comfortable 3-1 win at home to Greece showed the total transformation that the team has completed.

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Nine of the squad from that night in Luxembourg were in the starting XI against Greece. The squad has barely changed over those two years - a testament to the tactical and motivational skills that O'Neill has brought to the table.

Chris Coleman has similarly achieved a wonderful turnaround with Wales. Their path to qualification was equally impressive and secured with a game to spare.

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However, Coleman, unlike O'Neill, had a Real Madrid superstar to turn to in times of need - and deliver such moments Gareth Bale did.

By contrast, Northern Ireland's talisman has been Kyle Lafferty, who is currently struggling to secure his place in lowly Norwich City's first team. In the green shirt of Northern Ireland, though, he has been outstanding.

O'Neill opted to show faith in his main striker and Lafferty returned the favour by celebrating with his manager whenever he scored one of his seven goals during the qualifiers.

Even without Lafferty against Greece, O'Neill managed to get the most out of whoever he chose to lead his attacking line. He opted for Kilmarnock's Josh Magennis ahead of the more experienced Niall McGinn and he was repaid with a goal.

After the game, Magennis spoke of his gratitude towards the manager and of his ability to get the best out of his players.

A recognisable 4-5-1 system was adopted throughout the tournament and it appeared that each time the players stepped onto the pitch they were well aware of their duties. Players like Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas were afforded relatively free roles to express themselves and good quality football was the result.

The Green and White Army under predecessor Nigel Worthington often lacked imagination and structure. Under O'Neill, they have focused on two strong areas: Counter-attacking and set pieces.

The result has been a fantastic mix of entertainment and success that supporters have long yearned for. 

There are no superstars in this international side, let that be said, but over the course of three years, O'Neill has coupled excellent man-management skills and a clear structure to bring the success that a generation has waited for.

Very few mangers in Europe can claim to have had such a profound affect on a group of players in recent history. 

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