Those of you familiar with Saving Private Ryan will remember the opening scenes on the beach. The burden of leadership was clearly observed when Tom Hanks, stunned, deaf and bewildered was coming to after a shell burst to be greeted with a Private First Class shouting the above title into his ear. Whilst Jose Mourinho at the moment might view press conferences to landing on Omaha beach I doubt Michael O’Neill does. But the remaining Northern Ireland matches this year certainly will demand of him hugely as he manages one team changing into another.
Staying on the theme of conflict, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Israel comprise an interesting trio of countries for the next two matches. Military detail certainly will be needed if Northern Ireland are to carry on their recent years of success and it should be said that it does appear that all is in place to do this.
Since the Euros, the questions or the two main issues facing Michael have been what happens when the present team calls it a day and will O’Neill himself be around? O’Neill himself is very much around and that Euro 2016 team is being managed and is metamorphosing into perhaps, the Euro 2020 team. Since the despair in Basel, the time has been well used not only harvesting eligible players but integrating them into team, squad and culture. I would suggest too, that looking on, this has occurred with some success both on and off the pitch, as you read and listen to interviews from young guns hungry to grasp their opportunity.
The South Korean game was a huge step forward – new players coming from behind against clever and tricky opponents and that blew a lot of possible negativity away. The Central American tour was more a success off the pitch and provides the manager with a better panoramic view of the resources available to him as we head into the autumn. His main issue now is to shape the frame of the side against a backdrop of quite a few players not playing for their club sides regularly. That, however, has been a perennial issue for NI managers over the years. By and large, it does not always translate onto the pitch but it’s not helpful.
With regard to the upcoming matches, Michael’s main issue is to consider positionally and generally the nature of the side for the future. It even starts naturally enough in the six-yard box. At the end of our sojourn in Gaul two years ago Michael McGovern seemed entombed between the posts for the foreseeable but the Norwich move has not done him any favours. Trevor Carson would appear to be the current custodian but with an eye to the future and his abilities being amplified in Yorkshire, Bailey Peacock – Farrell is challenging hard.
Gareth McAuley has stated his intention to carry on if he gets club game time and this could determine whether the manager goes with the three centre-back system or reverts to a back four. Chris Brunt is a huge loss but Evans, Lewis and Ferguson can manage the left defensive slot. Midfield is very much a conundrum, especially the central area. Davis, Norwood and Corry Evans have populated the area for many years but now George Saville and Paddy McNair are knocking the door loudly with physicality, power and perhaps goals. In the wide areas, Magennis, McGinn and the injured Dallas have been joined by Jordan Jones who I expect to see start at Windsor in the first game. This all sits bearing in mind that Gavin Whyte is hovering as well.
Up front is particularly interesting. Plenty of huge questions. Will the newly transferred and resurgent Glasgow Ranger Lafferty return to the Kesh force of nature he was in 2014/15? Would a more physical and mobile midfield of McNair and Saville allow two up front which has been periodic? Assuming Lafferty starts can fellow club leaders of the line, Magennis, Washington, Boyce and Grigg work well with him. Grigg is probably the most interesting case. This is a chance for him, a final chance I suggest if he wants international football. O’Neill has stated, quite rightly that he needs more from him outside the box than he has shown.
Lack of club game time could hit Jamie Ward hard this time around but he has speed and a style of play different to others up front and that contrast and option is still necessary for us. I feel Magennis when he has been played wide right has pinned down full-backs and I would like to see that again. His work ethic is huge for the team as well.
Bosnia are a dozen places below us in the World rankings. The ‘Golden Lillies’ as they are called at home are led well off and on the pitch respectively through former Yugoslavian/Croatian superstar, Robert Prosinecki and ex-Manchester City and current Roma forward Edin Dzeko. A bit like ourselves, they have struggled for goals recently only scoring four goals in six games this year, three of which came in one game. However, I have little doubt our first ever game against them will be a tester for us and if I am honest, is exactly the sort of game we need at home.
Israel are down in the late nineties with regard to FIFA rankings but they are a team we have never had it easy against. Managed by ex – Austrian international Andi Herzog for a month now, their most familiar player to these shores is probably Brighton’s Beram Kayal. The majority of their players play in the Israeli domestic league. Memories of November 1981 and World Cup 1982 qualification will always remain around Israel.
The two matches can be viewed as one serious and one friendly due to the nature of the Nations League, but for Michael O’Neill and each player, every minute will be a massive indicator as to how we go forward in preparation for the Euro Qualifiers in March and beyond. With regard to future selections, each match is as important as the other as far as the players are or should be concerned. My worry, similar to the November 2016 series of double-headers against Azerbaijan and then Croatia is that players will be too ‘up’ for the first competitive game and not able to lift themselves for the subsequent friendly. Come the end of November it will be very interesting to see where we stand but I expect the team to be as competitive as before. In Michael we trust and there is no better leader than our present one as NI fans turn to someone to ask what we do now?