Steven Davis: Michael O’Neill may be a man in demand

Wales 1 Northern Ireland 0: The odyssey is over for Northern Ireland but other journeys may be just beginning.
Steven Davis: Michael O’Neill may be a man in demand

Their exploits in France have been mixed, truthfully, but a squad containing 19 players who play their trade outside the English Premier League did enough to warrant individual interest among clubs sprucing up their squads this summer.

None more so than their manager, probably.

O’Neill signed a new four-year deal in March on the back of qualification for Euro 2016, one that brings him through to the summer of 2020 and which has made him the highest-paid manager in the North’s history.

Yet he has never batted questions regarding possible interest from the UK away with the sort of gusto that would suggest a total lack of interest, and he will find his name flung into the rumour mill in the coming weeks.

Southampton, for instance, are in the market for a new boss and it was put to Steven Davis, who plays in midfield for the Saints and captaining the North here in France, that it may not be a bad match.

“Stranger things have happened, haven’t they?” said Davis, “So who knows?”

O’Neill’s CV has been bolstered by his spells with Shamrock Rovers and the North but the absence of any managerial experience in England means that clubs may be reticent about taking that leap in the dark.

Davis, understandably, believes that is a risk that merits taking. “As a player or a manager you have to get the opportunity. A lot of our lads playing on this stage here are playing in the lower leagues and they are capable of getting to this standard. They just needed the chance to do that and the same for managers.”

Davis was among Northern Ireland’s best players here. His harassment of opposing midfielders was crucial for a team starved of possession, so too his ability to hold the ball and link what play they had.

The other standouts, predictably, manned the rearguard.

Gareth McAuley, though he sent his side out with the own goal from Gareth Bale’s 75th minute cross on Saturday, was immense. So too was his West Brom teammate Johnny Evans who chaperoned the Real Madrid man in Paris.

And then there was Michael McGovern. The goalkeeper’s performance in denying Germany a string of goals in the last group game allowed O’Neill’s side to advance to the last 16 on goal difference but he was consistently excellent through the month.

McGovern declined the offer of a new contract with Hamilton Academical last March and already had the likes of Rangers and Celtic sniffing around and he returns home this week in the knowledge that he played his cards exactly right.

“They were very keen to have me sign a new contract but they understood the opportunity I had here. It was too good to sign a contract. It was a bit of a gamble but I backed myself. You have to have confidence in yourself.”

All of them shone under O’Neill who has worked wonders in switching personnel, formations, and other tactics. The one blot was their uncharacteristically limp and tentative opening defeat to Poland in Nice.

The rebound, a measured and clever 2-0 win against Ukraine in Lyon, restored confidence and established the platform for qualification that was assured thanks to that backs-to-the-wall 1-0 loss to the world champions.

“We played against some world-class players in this tournament, guys like Lewandowski and Bale, and I thought we kept them relatively quiet over the two games,” said Davis.

“It was a strong German side that got through us, but we have managed to find a system that works with the players we have got and that gives us the best chance to get results.”

The main regret will be Saturday.

Bale had one free kick saved by McGovern and Aaron Ramsey a ninth minute goal ruled out for offside but they were rare moments of danger for the North who created some decent attempts of their own.

“We looked strong at set pieces and created a few chances we could’ve taken on another day but we move on,” said Niall McGinn. “We are moving in the right direction. There’s good times ahead.”

WALES:

W Hennessy, Chester, A Williams, Davies, C Gunter, J Allen, J Ledley, A Ramsey, Taylor, S Vokes, G Bale.

Subs:

H Robson-Kanu for Vokes (55); J Williams for Ledley (62).

NORTHERN IRELAND:

M McGovern, A Hughez, G McAuley, J Evans, J Ward, S Davis, C Evans, O Norwood, S Dallas, K Lafferty.

Subs:

C Washington for Ward (68), N McGinn for Norwood (79); J Magennis for Macauley (83).

Referee:

M Atkinson (England).

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox