Michael O’Neill will begin his second reign as Northern Ireland manager believing his side has every chance of reaching the Euro 2024 finals.
The 53-year-old, who returned to the job in December almost three years after leaving for Stoke, hopes Thursday’s opening qualifier away to San Marino is the start of a campaign in which they can replicate the greatest success of his previous eight-year stint in charge, when they made it to Euro 2016.
“At the start of any campaign you feel you have a real chance, that is the most important thing and this campaign is no different,” said O’Neill, whose side will also face Finland on Sunday with Denmark, Slovenia and Kazakhstan the other sides in Group H.
“It was not that difficult a decision for me to come back into the role. I unfortunately missed the opportunity to take the country into the (Euro 2020/21) play-off which was part of the deal when I left.
“To get the chance again in terms of a qualification campaign with this group of players, and also to have…a lot of the senior players still around was important for me.
“I suppose during the first three months, I knew what I was going to get from these lads, (and) what I saw potentially coming through which obviously gave me a lot of excitement and motivation as well.”
Sitting alongside Craig Cathcart, who will captain the side this week, O’Neill cut a relaxed figure after watching his side train in Serravalle.
Injuries have robbed him of the services of Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce and more, so O’Neill will turn to a younger core of players he does not know so well.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it since Sunday. The problems we had were pre-coming in because the injuries happened prior to us meeting up.
“It’s not like we have come in and lost six or seven players. We knew from the off those players weren’t going to be with us so you adapt to that.
“It’s been enjoyable for me getting to know some of the younger players but also being able to put some demands and standards on them as well.
“In this campaign we are going to have experience which is invaluable to us but also what the young boys bring will be very important.”
The experience which has been sidelined cannot be replaced but O’Neill said he still had the players he needs to get results and is looking forward to seeing Northern Ireland grow stronger during the campaign as others return.
“I’m confident this team can go forward and with the squad of players we have at this moment in time, I believe we can be very competitive in this group,” he said.
“As this group progresses we will hopefully start to see the likes of Dallas and those players come back.
“Our squad should get stronger as the campaign goes on.”
Cathcart will captain the side in the absence of both Davis and Evans, a proud moment for the 34-year-old, who was part of O’Neill’s first squad back in 2012.
The Watford defender is back in the side after sitting out the Nations League fixtures in June and September which proved to be the last of Ian Baraclough’s reign.
“I felt like I needed a break at that stage of my career,” said Cathcart, who has 69 caps. “I felt like I needed a summer off and I enjoyed time with my family but when I spoke to Michael on the phone, I was happy to come back into the fold.
“Absolutely it feels good to be back…it feels like old times, there’s familiar faces around, a good couple of days training and the feel-good factor is back.”
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