Monday’s 2-0 win over Czech Republic means that Northern Ireland are guaranteed a place in the play-offs for next year’s World Cup, and that has lead to a more positive atmosphere around the team.
“At one time, we had boys who dreaded coming to play for us in Belfast,” O’Neill said. “Now they relish it.”
With many players eligible to represent more than one country, O’Neill believes the current side’s successes will help young players dedicate themselves to the Green and White Army.
“It was very difficult in the early years because we didn’t have a lot to sell,” O’Neill said. “The ground was dilapidated and the results were not positive, so to convince a young player to come and play for Northern Ireland was not an easy thing to do.
“If you look at someone like Oliver Norwood, for example, who played for us at Under-17. He is a Burnley boy and his father is from Northern Ireland, Ollie is touching 50 caps now for us.
“The thing I don’t like to see happen, and it happens a lot to us, is when a young player is put in a position where he has to switch his international allegiance between the ages of 17 and 21.
“It is only one choice you get, and we have lost too many young players to the Republic of Ireland on that basis whose international careers have floundered rather than flourished because of that decision. It is a big decision for any young player to have to make.
“The competition for young players is no different really from club football. Big clubs are looking for the best players at 12 and 13, and international teams are starting young as well.”