Fabio Capello’s impressive coaching C.V. includes seven top-flight titles and a UEFA Champions League triumph, but he was thwarted in Belfast by a man in his managerial infancy recording his first victory at the Northern Ireland reins.
Nearly 12,000 supporters in green jumped to their feet as the referee blew his final whistle at Windsor Park and Michael O’Neill walked over to his opposite number to shake his hand. Capello reciprocated, having seen his Russia side go down to a spirited Northern Ireland performance in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying.
“It’s great for me [to come up against Capello], O’Neill told FIFA.com. “I’m a young manager, and to get the chance to go up against someone of Fabio’s stature in the game is obviously a great challenge and something that I relish. It’s always nice to beat one of the big nations.”
It was O’Neill’s first victory in his tenth game at the helm of the Green and White Army, following five draws and four defeats.
He said: “I thought we would have won a game prior to last night, but the encouraging things are the performances. We’ve been dominant in all the home games. I think the atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic and the players certainly responded to that. It was a young team that played, they were magnificent and got what they deserved from the game.”
The players may have earned their memorable win on the pitch, but O’Neill revealed the three points were also down to meticulous planning off of it.
“I’ve watched Russia countless times now, so we knew what to expect in terms of the level of their play and how they like to play through midfield," said the former Newcastle United, Dundee United and Hibernian player. "The most encouraging thing for us was the tactical nous that we had to stifle the Russians when we didn’t have the ball. We haven’t altered our system in any of the games. We’ve got good technical players and we have to maximise our style of play to suit those types of players.”
O'Neill continued: “Obviously I would think that there is some merit in that. The performance out in Portugal (a 1-1 draw in October) was of a similar standard, albeit away from home. I think in the other games we didn’t play with the same level of belief at times.”
That lack of belief could be down to Northern Ireland’s long period of absence from the biggest stages. O’Neill has had an entire international playing career, retired and now become the manager in the time since his country last took part in a major international tournament.
“I came into the squad in 1987 when a lot of the players who had been to the World Cups were still around," he explained. "Those players [from the 1982 and 1986 FIFA World Cups] are iconic players in the history of Northern Ireland football.
“The qualification process for European countries is so much more difficult now though. There are so many more countries and you have to come second in the group of six to reach a play-off, as opposed to second in a group of four which would have taken you to the finals in the past.”
As well as being influenced by the classes of 1982 and '86, O’Neill himself was helped along by an influential player in his time at Newcastle.
He said: “Paul [Gascoigne] was a fantastic player, a very positive player, and it was great for young players to be around him. I was 17, 18 years of age at the time – he was only 20 himself – but he did encourage me to grow and develop and he was a magnificent player.”
O’Neill is hoping that the senior members of the squad will put their disappointments behind them and, like Gascoigne and the classes of 1982 and '86 were for him, be a positive influence on the youngsters in the current Northern Ireland squad.
"Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis, those players have played down the years and they’ve grown up with disappointments," O'Neill said. "It would be nice to get them something more out of their international careers.
"We obviously have a long-term goal of qualifying for a major tournament again. I don’t think we’re under any illusions how difficult that’s going to be. Certainly nights like the victory against Russia give us great hope.”
O’Neill will be looking to build on that sense of hope and the excitement around the national team when Portugal visit Windsor Park in his side’s next qualifier.
“I think we have to make Windsor Park a fortress again," he said. "We have to make life uncomfortable for the big teams, and the supporters play a huge part in that. Against Russia there were 12,000 people all in green, there’s a great sense of identity and togetherness there. It does prove nicely what Northern Ireland is all about.
"I think when we have that kind of atmosphere in the stadium, the energy levels of the players do increase and we play at a tempo that allows us to compete with the top teams.”
O’Neill wants a strong finish to Brazil 2014 qualification, with his side currently sitting fourth in European Zone Group F, behind Portugal, Russia and Israel.
“Azerbaijan, Israel and Luxembourg are all difficult games," he said. "We’ll be looking to pick up as many points as possible in those matches because we have to aim to finish at least fourth in the group.”
The former midfielder, who picked up 33 caps for his country, said on taking the managerial post in 2011 that he wanted to be “fully inclusive for all players eligible for the international team.”
O'Neill reflected: “We have lost some of the players who have yet to play at full international level and have opted to play for the Republic of Ireland, which is always disappointing. We do reinforce with the players for the benefit of their career to stay with Northern Ireland, but my focus has to be on the players that are committed because international football remains a choice. It's up to the player to make that choice.”
O’Neill will certainly be hoping for more famous nights at Windsor Park, which, like the players of 1982 and '86 who motivated him, might just inspire the next generation of Northern Irish talent.