Michael O’Neill takes positives from difficult Nations League campaign

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Michael O’Neill may have joked he wanted to forget the Nations League had ever been invented, but he believes the tournament has done plenty to develop his young Northern Ireland players.

A miserable campaign for the Green and Whites was completed on Sunday evening when Austria scored a stoppage-time winner at Windsor Park to beat Northern Ireland 2-1 and make it four defeats out of four for O’Neill’s men in the competition.

And speaking after the game, O’Neill raised a smile when he said his team wanted to forget the tournament had ever been devised.

Their relegation to League C was already confirmed before kick-off but despite the constant of results going against them, O’Neill said the Nations League had helped him develop his players and a new style of play.

“When we look back you have to ask what we want from the competition,” O’Neill said. “We wanted to try and develop the team and I genuinely think we’ve done that. The negatives are the results, not the performances.

“Has it got players the experience they need? Yes it has. Has it developed the team, style of the team and how we want to play? I think that is the case as well.

“We have to put it behind us. The good thing is, had we lost games like this in the Euros you’d be particularly despondent, the damage would be much greater from what it is in the Nations League.”

O’Neill pointed to the performances of several individuals in Sunday’s game as Northern Ireland did a good job of containing a strong Austria team until suffering a bitter late blow.

Hearts defender Michael Smith was able to contain Bayern Munich’s David Alaba as he made only his third Northern Ireland start, Jordan Jones impressed as he won a fourth cap while Liam Boyce gave the Austrian defenders plenty of problems with his physicality.

“Look at Boycie, he’s playing for Burton,” O’Neill said. “He’s coming in against two centre-backs, both who are physical and technically good as well. Again I thought Liam gave us an awful lot in the game.

“Michael Smith playing in the SPL, he’s playing against Alaba. Alaba plays for Bayern Munich. They are stepping up and playing against players who are at the top of the game in Europe.

“I thought Jordan came of age a little today. He showed real appetite, real belief that he could bring his game to this level, he was a threat throughout.”

And while the campaign was a frustrating one in terms of results, O’Neill believes the experience of losing games could be a benefit come next year’s Euro 2020 qualifiers.

“You could have a wonderful Nations League and think maybe you’re in a better position than you are with expectations extremely high,” he said.

“I think the boys believe they’re capable of mounting a real challenge to qualify again and that’s the most important thing.

“We had to try and get younger players, with some very limited club football behind them, into the team. Hopefully the experience will make us ready and battle-hardened for March and what lies ahead.”

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