Northern Ireland, 2011-2020 & 2022–
When the Irish FA wanted to interview me for the vacancy of Northern Ireland manager in 2011, I didn’t think I was ready.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been managing in club football – it doesn’t help prepare you for a role at international level. But I also knew I had nothing to lose.
Upon taking the job I didn’t have any permanent staff. I was the head of recruitment, the technical director – everything.
Results hadn’t been good and the fans were disillusioned, but I believed there was a better team there than they had shown. What we didn’t have was players who believed we could qualify for a major tournament, or who were enjoying representing their national team.
Playing international football should be one of the biggest achievements in any player’s career. There was a lot we had to change – particularly their mentalities.
I had to get my staff together in the space of a month, and then attempt to pick a squad that could be relied on for as many games as possible.
"we played well against the bigger teams, but faltered against the smaller ones – we would self-destruct"
The IFA didn’t have a scouting network. At times we were a little bit blind when making selections, so we had to introduce one in a cost-effective way. I also had to form a relationship with the players.
My second fixture, in June 2012, was a friendly away to Holland. We lost 6-0, but there had been countless withdrawals from the squad. That could have led to a conflict – I could have insisted that they needed to be involved – but then I would have lost those players. I was disappointed, but I had to forget about it and look to build again when the competitive games arrived.
We got a much better response from the players when they did, but those first two years were still difficult. We played very well against the bigger teams, but faltered against the smaller ones. The team would self-destruct – we’d play well for long periods, and then lose.
By the end of that qualification campaign for Brazil 2014, we’d won once, drawn four times and lost five times. But after 70 minutes in those same games we’d been on course for three victories, three draws and four defeats. Twelve points, at a time when the third-placed team had a chance of qualification.
In a team meeting I tried to convince the players that reaching Euro 2016 was possible, as long as we learned to see games out. I also told them how important consistency in selection would be if we were going to do so. Steven Davis and Roy Carroll were always available, but we needed six to eight players starting every game. Finally, we’d need to beat the bottom two teams in our qualification group, home and away.
One of the turning points came when we beat Hungary 2-1 in September 2014. We were already without Johnny Evans when Gareth McAuley went off injured, and Hungary then scored from a corner.
"we needed a talisman – someone who could win games for us – and kyle's goals came in important moments"
“Here we go again,” I thought. “We’re going to play well for 70 minutes and lose.”
But this time we came back. We scored a brilliant goal, through Niall McGinn, to get level, and Kyle Lafferty scored the winner. The dressing room afterwards – well, it was a start, but we needed to follow that up in our next two games at home to the Faroe Islands and away to Greece.
We won both matches 2-0, leaving us top of the group after the first three games. Both the players and media could see how positive a start we’d made, and were thinking about qualification. We had momentum, and with that withdrawals were no longer a thing.
Kyle (above) became massive for us, and for the belief we had. We’d needed a talisman – someone to win games for us – and his seven goals in that qualifying campaign came in important moments. He was also supported by a strong backbone, and goals scored from set-pieces.
Our spirit was incredible. In September 2015 we beat the Faroe Islands 3-1, and then drew 1-1 with Hungary. Kyle scored in the 92nd minute to maintain a four-point gap between us and them in the group. We knew that if we beat Greece at home, we’d qualify.
That game became Steven’s crowning moment. We were without Johnny – Paddy McNair played one of his first games, at right-back, and was brilliant – but Steven produced an amazing captain’s performance to score twice. The feeling in the dressing room afterwards was even more incredible.
"on the bus from the airport terminal to the plane, we learned we'd qualified. that was a brilliant feeling"
For our last game, in Finland, I expected it to be a challenge to get them on the plane. The players had a real desire to win the group, though, and with a 1-1 draw they did. They became the first Northern Ireland team to top a qualifying group.
We were on a 12-match unbeaten run heading into the Euros in France. We’d been drawn in a group with Germany, the world champions; Poland, another really good team with a world-class player in Robert Lewandowski; and Ukraine, who were also strong. It could have been kinder, but our aim remained to give a good account of ourselves, and to get four points.
It was in our favour that we had Germany last, which gave us two matches before our biggest test. “Four points will get us to the next stage of the tournament,” we told the players. When we lost our first game 1-0 to Poland, however, that meant we had to beat Ukraine.
We did, 2-0, with Gareth and Niall scoring. That left us to play Germany, the world champions, in Paris. If we were going to be eliminated, that might even have been the best way.
For 30 minutes they battered us, but we got through it because Michael McGovern made save after save. The game then settled down in the second half, but at 1-0 down I thought we could nick a goal and get back into it.
The temptation was to throw on more attacking players, but we also knew that Germany could punish us. And if 1-0 down became 3-0 down, we were out. We were juggling our goal difference with chasing an extra point, but we saw the game out instead.
"we developed a really strong relationship between the players and the fans – smaller nations need that"
Our total of three points left us short of our target, but games in other groups went our way. On the bus from the airport terminal to the plane back to Lyon, we learned that we had qualified. That was another brilliant feeling.
We expected Italy to then beat the Republic of Ireland. Had that happened, we would’ve played France, the hosts, in Lyon, where we’d already won. That would have been great for us, and great for the fans. When Robbie Brady scored in the 85th minute for Ireland to secure a 1-0 win, we knew it was back to Paris, to play Wales.
The most important thing was that we believed we could win. Similarly to Poland and Lewandowski, we knew we had to keep Gareth Bale quiet. Corry Evans was instructed to stay on top of Aaron Ramsey at all times. We knew that that was the way to cut the supply to Bale.
We handled the game really well – Wales were favourites, so psychologically it was more difficult for them – and there were few chances and little between us. A lot of the players knew each other, and in the end we were separated only when Bale got free and put a great ball into the box that put Gareth McAuley in a very difficult position. As a result, he turned the ball into his own net.
It was a real shame. To get to the last eight would have been an amazing achievement, and we might have gone further – Wales went to the last four.
But we’d built expectations, and we were also able to deliver in Belfast. That team evolved while Windsor Park was being rebuilt, and every game there became an occasion.
Northern Ireland have always had great away fans, because they love travelling, experiencing new places and enjoying all those nights away. But what I felt we developed at our home games was a really strong relationship between the players and the fans – something I think that, as a smaller nation, you need if you’re going to have a chance to do anything.
The players were really enjoying playing in their own stadium, which they’d not done for years. And, even more importantly, every young player had started to aspire to play for Northern Ireland.
That, I hope, is the legacy I left.
Author: The Coaches' Voice