As featured on Guardian Sport

It all started on a dreary night inside a half-empty, cheerless Windsor Park. Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland were in the process of getting dispatched 3-0 by Norway, ensuring that the newly-appointed manager endured a hellish first evening in the dugout. At that stage, the self-styled Green and White Army had managed only one win in fourteen friendlies and the outlook for O’Neill looked as bleak as it did for much of predecessor Nigel Worthington’s moribund reign.

Northern Ireland is perhaps rightly considered minnows in the European football community, but they nevertheless have some great memories of the World Cup. They remain the least populous nation to make it past the first round of international football’s showpiece, and Gerry Armstrong’s group-winning strike against Spain in 1982 is still one of the most iconic moments in the competition’s history.

The European Championship, however, has proved elusive to them and, after O’Neill’s tenure began with that dismal defeat to the Scandinavians in January 2012, it looked very much like making a Euros debut was something of a pipe dream. Rewind back to September 2013 and you would find Northern Ireland being overturned by Luxembourg, a side that hadn’t won a home World Cup qualifier for 43 years until defeating O’Neill’s men. The fallout from that disaster was widespread, with O’Neill branding the performance “pathetic” and “embarrassing”. ‘Face it,’ The Belfast Telegraph reported, ‘Northern Ireland are at rock bottom.’ At that stage, they were.

They did come agonisingly close to qualifying for France 84 but, despite defeating reigning European Champions and ’82 World Cup finalists West Germany home and away, they missed out on goal difference. It is fitting, then, that their greatest opportunity to qualify since then is for a tournament to be staged in France once again. Indeed, thanks to O’Neill’s hard graft and determination, Northern Ireland now stands on the precipice of what would be their greatest moment since Spain 82.

With 13 points from six games, NI have consolidated a flying start and have now put themselves in a commanding position heading into the final four games. A 0-0 draw against Romania at Windsor Park on Saturday night may have been slightly disappointing – especially considering the home side’s superiority – but the positives must be drawn from another hard-working performance that had the group leaders rattled throughout a battle against the blustery elements on Donegall Avenue.

Northern Ireland were never going to be overwhelming favourites in any group, but O’Neill is no stranger to going up against the odds. This is the man who took Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League on a budget of £600,000, marking history as the only Irish team to reach the group stages of a European club competition. O’Neill, who won 33 caps as a player for the country he is managing, earned widespread acclaim for taking a squad of players that far and it made him a leading candidate for the national team role.

Although O’Neill displayed a clear aptitude for club management there was scepticism surrounding his appointment, which was perhaps inevitable considering his lack of experience at international level. The Northern Ireland fans had been suffering in the stands of Windsor for too long and yearned for the expertise they believed necessary to take the team to new heights and bring the noise back to Belfast. Looking back now, the IFA’s decision to appoint O’Neill ahead of Jim Magilton, Ian Dowie and Brian Kerr seems both bold and inspired.

The secret to O’Neill’s success in the past year – more than anything else – has been his relationship with the players. Man-management is a cornerstone of O’Neill’s coaching philosophy and it has shown in the collective spirit of this team. For international managers, it is sometimes more difficult to establish bonds with the players considering the amount of time they get to spend with squads – compared to club bosses – but O’Neill was determined to avoid that potential pitfall. The Portadown man-made it his mission to keep in regular contact with his players, through phone calls and text messaging.

A majority of the Northern Ireland squad don’t feature in the first-team for their clubs but it does not deter O’Neill from watching his men play. He would go to reserve games and junior games to ensure he is monitoring their progress sufficiently. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rising star in the North Antrim Youth League or Jonny Evans playing at Old Trafford for Manchester United, the NI boss will be there; a refreshing contrast to the more traditional approaches of Worthington or Lawrie Sanchez. The benefit of this is that his players feel valued under him. The players truly appreciate O’Neill’s meticulous attention to detail and, judging from the results on the pitch, it is a dynamic that has been greatly productive. The player-coach trust axis is foremost in this national side and when there is a mutual appreciation of this nature, the performances improve accordingly.

When the group for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign was announced, there was a tinge of trepidation masking a light sense of optimism. Northern Ireland fans are trained for not building their hopes up but the Green and White Army had been drawn in a group from which they could genuinely compete for a qualifying spot. Compare that to the men from south of the border who were pitted against World Champions Germany, an impressive Poland outfit and a rejuvenated Scotland in a fiercely competitive Group D. It would be foolish to believe Northern Ireland could occupy second place after five games in such company but sometimes in football you have to take advantage of a generous situation, and NI have certainly done just that.

Building a solid foundation for qualification is always a bonus and they got off to a flyer in their opening game, claiming a first away win for four years in Budapest in dramatic fashion against Hungary. That game marked out the dogged perseverance and resilience that has underpinned Northern Ireland’s journey in the past nine months, with Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty both striking inside the last ten minutes to clinch a momentous victory and get their campaign off to the best possible start. The enormity of the result for NI’s fragile confidence could not be understated. This was only their second win in two and a half years under O’Neill and, although he insisted after that game that his belief never dwindled, one can only wonder what direction both his future and NI’s campaign would have went down if they had fallen to defeat in their opener.

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Kyle Lafferty’s resurgence has been vital to the Northern Irish cause

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The victory gave O’Neill something he could work with; a platform, a renewed sense of confidence. After safely negotiating a 2-0 win over Faroe Islands in their next game at Windsor Park, O’Neill led his men to Athens, where they would take on 2004 European Champions Greece. Realising that Claudio Ranieri’s reign was already faltering with Greece – they had failed to record a single victory under the eccentric Italian – O’Neill instructed his side to press high up the pitch and attack from the outset. After they did just that, the dividends were almost immediate, with Jamie Ward firing in a well-taken half-volley in the ninth minute.

Greece looked visibly shaken, and a team tragically short on self-belief struggled to advance over the halfway line as an assured Northern Ireland took a firm grip on proceedings. This felt like something of a watershed moment for Northern Ireland. The win Budapest was historic, but the authoritative display away to Greece reaffirmed O’Neill’s men as a force to be reckoned with in Group F. Lafferty’s second-half strike propelled them to another three points and, all of a sudden, Northern Ireland had made their greatest ever start to a European qualifying campaign.

The words flowing from O’Neill’s mouth in the post-match press conference portrayed a man who had exceeded his own expectations. He hailed the performance as “magnificent” and of “excellent quality”. ‘What were these words?’ the press of Northern Ireland thought. For so long had the national side wallowed in mediocrity that three successive qualifier victories seemed like alien territory. It is wonderful what a couple of victories can do for the spirit and energy around a city and there is no doubting that this run through the qualifiers has invigorated the national team following.

An away defeat to Romania was a stern reminder that a passage to France was going to be far from seamless but the atmosphere inside Windsor for the crucial game with Finland was a thunderous chorus of support for O’Neill’s men, the Kop stand awash with green scarves and flags. Lavery’s Bar on the Dublin Road was overflowing with excitable fans, while the Lisburn Road rocked with the sound of 10,000 inside Windsor.

It was a warm yet windy spring afternoon and the game began with all the expected tension. Every time Finland came forward the hairs on Northern Irish necks were raised in fear, but luckily they were to be punching the air in ecstasy in the 10th minute; Chris Baird’s impressive glancing header found the corner of Lukas Hradecky’s net. It was, however, ruled out for offside rather contentiously and the NI fans were forced to wait, exacerbating the sense of anxiety in the south Belfast stadium.

Moments later, Ward broke free of the Finnish defence but his effort was well saved by Hradecky. It remained goalless. That was until Lafferty fired home a wonderful volley, sending Windsor into a rhapsody. Five minutes later, and it was two; Lafferty again. This time, the on-loan Çaykur Rizespor striker latched onto Conor McLaughlin’s pinpoint cross from the right-wing. Replays showed the ball ricocheting off Lafferty’s left shoulder but luck tends to be easier to come by when you’re on top, and that’s what happened for NI’s no.9.

Needless to say, Lafferty has experienced a number of vicissitudes during both his club and international career that have had an adverse affected on his form, at times becoming disenchanted with the game. However, his renaissance has been one of the most satisfactory facets of Northern Ireland under O’Neill. It is important to remember that footballers are beings who thrive on positive affection and warmth. O’Neill has been brilliant at being a friend as well as an employer but when he has been required to show a firmer streak, he has not backed down.

After Lafferty’s international career hit rock bottom with a red card against Portugal after a vicious, scything challenge on João Pereira, O’Neill pulled no punches in what was a withering assessment of the striker’s overall contribution, slamming the tackle as “reckless” and “ridiculous”. Following that game, O’Neill met with Lafferty in which he gave the player an ultimatum: start delivering and show that playing for Northern Ireland means something or his international career would be no more under the current regime.

As it turned out, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to Lafferty, who has five goals in this campaign and finds himself riding the crest of a wave from being the hero and talismanic figure for O’Neill. The case of Lafferty, once again, shows O’Neill’s shrewd man-management aptitude. Lafferty is now the source of firepower – and inspiration – much like David Healy who scored goals for fun under Lawrie Sanchez during the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

Lafferty was once again in battling mood against the Romanians, making life tough for the defenders at every opportunity. Unfortunately, he just missed out on another headline-grabbing performance when he failed to convert a presentable opening in the second half. However, encouragement could be drawn from another feisty display from the Enniskillen man, who continues to endear himself to his home crowd. It always helps to have a striker in a rich vein of form and, with players like McLaughlin impressing along with the excellent leadership of captain Steven Davis, Northern Ireland can surely still dream of France.

There is a long way to go but whatever way you look at it, O’Neill has done a marvellous job. It goes without saying that this campaign will fondly be remembered by the players and fans of Northern Ireland for some time to come.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11

With special thanks to Steven Beacom, sports editor of The Belfast Telegraph, for his insight.