Northern Ireland: Boss Michael O'Neill calls for realism but says he might 'have to look at myself'

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill has denied his young team have underperformed - but said he might have to evaluate one of his own decisions.

Another injury-hit Northern Ireland side continued their dreadful Euro 2024 qualifying campaign with a crushing 4-0 defeat by Finland in Helsinki.

They have now lost seven out of nine matches in a torrid campaign.

"No, I don't think so," O'Neill said when asked if the campaign has been an underperformance.

"I think we have to be realistic with the age of some of these players and their club experience as well.

"Probably the most difficult thing is that on the field we have maybe not had enough experience around those [young] players.

"If I have been guilty, maybe I have to look at myself and think 'have I put too many of the younger players in together too often?'

"Possibly that has been the case, so I will evaluate that as well but I have said from the outset that I believe we have to build a team out of this group of players. That is the objective.

"It is difficult, we do not have a lot of players playing at the top level of football in any league so that is the nature of where we are at this minute of time."

'We have slipped from where we were'

O'Neill was appointed for a second spell as Northern Ireland manager in December, soon after the draw placed Northern Ireland in a group that offered significant hope of qualification for next summer's finals.

Their bid for qualification was severely hindered before it started by long-term injuries to captain Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas and Corry Evans, with a host of other senior players joining them on the sidelines for long spells.

Going into this game, O'Neill said he was missing 15 players that would likely be in his squad - including stand-in captain Jonny Evans - meaning that once again the team had a very young and inexperienced look about it, with Rangers winger Ross McCausland starting on his debut against Finland despite having only been a late call-up himself on Monday.

O'Neill has said throughout the campaign that supporters need to be patient with his team, and again he highlighted what he feels in the reality while stressing that there is no short-term solution to the run of poor results.

"We came into the group as a pot five team and we will finish as a pot five team," he continued.

"We are in the third tier of European football now in terms of where we are in the Nations League as well, and that is where we are.

"We are going to have to build a team from this point and try and build it forward. We have slipped from where we were previously, that is pretty evident to see.

"We have lost a lot of experienced players over the last three years but also we have lost a lot of experience players specific to this campaign and that is really damaging. We just have to try and build a team.

"It is not going to be easy, we don't have players on the outside. We need some of the experienced players back to give us a hand, but there is no short-term answer to that, there is no short-term fix for where we are."

'We have to go in with belief against Denmark'

With qualification hopes long since quashed, O'Neill spoke before this final double-header about how important it was not to finish the campaign with their only wins having been against San Marino.

With top seeds Denmark coming to Windsor Park for the final qualifier on Monday, that now looks unlikely, but O'Neill says he and the players have to believe they can get a positive result.

"You have to go in with the belief that we can take something at home," he said. "We certainly believed we could take something from this game [the Finland defeat] but that hasn't been the case.

"We have just got to continue to try to prepare the team as best we can, to try and give them a chance to take something in any game they go into and that is what we will do between now and Monday.

"We will not just throw a team out on the pitch and think 'hopefully it will go our way'. There is a lot of preparation that went into this game and we will look at that as a staff and think 'are we going the right way with that?'

"I certainly believe we are and we just have to maintain that, and maybe look at ways we can freshen the team up in some respects.

"We changed the shape of the team to a back three again tonight. We were missing experienced players that probably would have helped us in that shape as well but ultimately that is my decision as a coach. That is my responsibility and I am comfortable to live with those decisions."