Euro 2024 qualifiers: Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill says his side simply must beat San Marino

13 October 2023 0 By Total Football News

Ni manager Michael O'Neill and captain Jonny Evans faced the media on FridayNi manager Michael O’Neill and captain Jonny Evans faced the media on Friday

Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Date: Saturday, 14 October Kick-off: 14:00 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio Ulster; live text commentary and report on the BBC Sport website; Match of the Day highlights on BBC One NI and BBC iPlayer from 22:25 BST.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has said his team simply have to beat San Marino in Saturday’s Euro 2024 qualifier at Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland go into the game against the world’s lowest-ranked team having lost their past five qualifiers.

NI began their Group H campaign with a 2-0 win away to San Marino in March thanks to two Dion Charles goals.

“Yes, look, we have to win the game,” O’Neill said when asked if only a victory would be good enough.

“We have not treated them with any disrespect or anything. We will approach this game in the same way we would for Slovenia.

“I suppose the only difference is that you are allowed to focus a little bit more on yourself and your own level of performance, and that is how we have approached this week.”

He added: “We have to win the game, it’s as simple as that. I don’t want to put any additional pressure on a young squad of players.

“They may read things and hear things but hopefully they don’t, instead just focus on the game in hand and go out and put in a good performance.”

‘We don’t have the players, they are not hiding’

The Northern Ireland squad trained at Windsor Park on Friday ahead of Saturday's qualifierThe Northern Ireland squad trained at Windsor Park on Friday ahead of Saturday’s qualifier

Sitting on just three points from a possible 18 means Northern Ireland’s hopes of reaching next summer’s European Championship in Germany are all but over, despite being drawn in a group that many supporters felt offered a realistic chance of qualification.

O’Neill spoke last week about the feeling of a missed opportunity that he has about the group, but before the San Marino game he also stressed how young his injury-hit squad is, and how expectations should be tempered because of that.

“My focus is on what’s in front of us and this group of players,” the manager responded when asked if he had given much thought to qualification for the 2028 Euros, for which Northern Ireland will be one of the joint hosts.

“They [the players] need a lot of work. There has been a lot of talk that this campaign has been disappointing, and yes it has been. But I think you have to be realistic and this group of players is not ready to qualify for a major tournament.

“You have to understand that. There are seven of them under 21, there are 14 of them who have three, four or five caps. We need to grow this group into a group of players who will be ready for the next campaign.

“Those are situations which were forced upon us with the loss of senior players for long periods of time.”

Asked about the lack of experienced players aged around 25 to 30 in his squad, he said: “We don’t have them. They’re not hiding, that’s the reality. We have 10 players in the Championship, they’re all here.

“We have one player in the Premier League, he’s here and he’s our captain. We have to make the most of it and mould them into a team that, going forward, can be more competitive in the group and have that resilience to come out in those tight games.”

Retired Cathcart sent ’emotional’ message to NI players

Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans have known each other since teenagers playing for Greenisland AcademyCraig Cathcart and Jonny Evans have known each other since teenagers playing for Greenisland Academy

Manchester United defender Jonny Evans, who started for his club in their last-gasp Premier League win over Brentford last weekend, will once again captain Northern Ireland in the continued absence of injured skipper Steven Davis.

Evans spoke of how he and the players are looking forward to playing in front of a sold-out Windsor Park on a Saturday afternoon, which they rarely get to do, while also insisting the squad’s confidence has not been dented by their five-game losing run.

He also gave an insight into an extra piece of motivation the Northern Ireland players received this week from recently-retired team stalwart Craig Cathcart.

“I’ve known Craig since I was about 10 years old. He played a lot of games and his personality was big,” Evans explained.

“We went across to Manchester United together and he became the entertainer in the squad. He also became a real leader as well. He will be really missed. When the squad got together the other night he was the topic of conversation.

“We sent him a text message and he got straight back. We know he loved it here and he sent quite an emotional message to all the boys in the group about how much Northern Ireland meant to him.

“I think we all knew it was a difficult decision for him [to retire] and being away with Northern Ireland is probably the thing he will miss the most.”

Having suffered shock defeats with Northern Ireland since making his debut in 2006, Evans also stressed the importance of the players having the right mindset against San Marino.

“Your mindset and mentality have got to be right going into the game. We have all been in situations where you are expected to win games and you don’t.

“We don’t want to have that feeling of a missed opportunity after the game. You know when your mindset is not right and you are not on it, but as you get older you learn to try and prepare for each game in the same way.”