Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill brushes aside criticism
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has brushed aside suggestions his side are becoming psychologically damaged by their struggles at home.
Windsor Park was once considered a fortress and the likes of England, Spain and Sweden all came unstuck there during the Lawrie Sanchez era. But in recent times the national side have suffered from a severe case of the Belfast blues and on Wednesday night drew 1-1 with lowly Azerbaijan to leave their World Cup dreams hanging by a thread.
That follows on from a disappointing draw against Luxembourg, meaning Northern Ireland have only won once on home turf in 12 fixtures dating back to June 2009. The Azerbaijan result could have been even worse had David Healy not struck a late leveller. O'Neill said: "The idea of mental scarring sounds fairly dramatic to me. I'm not too worried about that."
He added: "Northern Ireland throughout its history has found games like these difficult and we have stalwarts who have been through this time and time again. This group was always going to be tough and it's not as if we qualify for major tournaments on a regular basis.
"The main objective was to competitive in all our matches and to still have a chance at the tail end of the group. We've played four of the teams in the group and drawn with three of them, although we should have won two. So we have to see about picking up points at the back end of qualifying and we believe we can pick them up home and away in the remaining matches.
"We have a number of young players and this campaign might be a challenge too far for them but we have to develop a squad for future campaigns that will be more ready and better equipped."
O'Neill was also honest about what he perceived as success for the current group of players. A draw in Portugal last month may have raised expectations artificially high in some quarters, but he accepts World Cup qualification was always likely to be a long shot.
"I believe we will finish at least fourth in the group," he said. "We were drawn from pot four, so that's where we are. If we finish lower than that it would be a disappointment but there or above and we have to draw some sort of encouragement from that."
The immediate task in front of O'Neill is not an easy one, with group leaders Russia the next visitors to Windsor Park in March. Northern Ireland lost the away fixture 2-0 in Moscow and will now be without anchor man Chris Baird and first-choice striker Kyle Lafferty after both men picked up their second bookings of the campaign.
"It's disappointing because you don't want to lose key players," said O'Neill. "When lose some them it weakens us and makes life difficult. Chris has been very good for us in the four qualifying games and Kyle is, in many ways, the focal point of the team. But we have a few months to think about how we compensate for that and the only way to find out if some of our younger players are long-term internationals is to play them."
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