First Northern Ireland win is boss O'Neill's priority in 2013

By Grant CameronBBC Sport NI
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

No prizes for guessing what is top of Michael O'Neill's wish list this festive season.

As the old year passes, he will reflect on the preceding months of his Northern Ireland reign which have been cruelly bereft of victory.

A year after emerging as Nigel Worthington's successor, O'Neill's charges have drawn four games, and lost friendlies to Norway and the Netherlands in addition to their opening World Cup qualifier in Russia.

There have been more lows than highs, but then the foot-weary, long suffering Green and White Army who have tramped the highways and byways of Europe and beyond understood from the outset that his tenure would, out of necessity, produce a prolonged period of reassessment and readjustment.

David Healy's late goal salvaged a home draw against Azerbaijan
David Healy's late goal salvaged a home draw against Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier

The man who cut his teeth in the management game in Scotland with Brechin City and then Dublin giants Shamrock Rovers, was careful to make no rash promises and has quickly had to deal with that most arduous occupational hazard, the challenge of circumnavigating cry-offs in the form of injuries and suspensions.

His options in terms of experience have been limited - a problem of longstanding, of course.

He points with justification to the new school of younger players he is nurturing, while carefully balancing their integration with the need to retain old heads.

Ultimately he will be judged on results, but it was his vision for restoring Northern Ireland to better times that impressed the Irish FA when they interviewed him. He was refreshingly candid about what was required and is not a man who will be deflected from the challenge.

When he casts his mind back over the past few months, O'Neill will instantly identify the high point as the superb Porto performance when Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn's first-half goal came mighty close to spoiling Cristiano Ronaldo's 100th cap for Portugal.

As it transpired on a wickedly wet night, Northern Ireland came away from the Estadio do Dragao with a point, denied by Helder Postiga's tardy response but pride had been restored following a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Luxembourg in September.

The rock bottom trough was not of O'Neill's making it has to be said.

Revealed as the new manager in December 2011 and officially installed eight weeks later, he inherited pre-arranged friendlies against Norway and the Dutch.

The 6-0 obliteration of a youthful side in Amsterdam by a Netherlands team revelling in euphoria pre the Euro 2012 finals was clinical in execution but painful to observe, particularly following a 3-0 reverse at home by the Norwegians.

But by the time Finland arrived in Belfast for an August friendly, optimism had returned.

O'Neill might have momentarily permitted himself the luxury of contemplating that elusive first success when his side went 2-0 up inside 20 minutes.

However, Shane Ferguson's volley and a near-post finish from Kyle Lafferty were wiped out as the Finns turned the tables to go 3-2 up. It took a late Martin Paterson penalty to restore parity.

In all honesty, World Cup qualification from Group F was aspirational, rather than realistic, for even the most ardent supporter.

The opening mission in Moscow was made all the more improbable by injuries to Paddy McCourt, Paterson and Shane Ferguson.

O'Neill sprung a surprise by including Derby striker Jamie Ward ahead of Rangers forward Dean Shiels. But the 26-year-old not only earned his first competitive international start and third cap but also due respect from his doubters as the men in green worked hard to restrict Fabio Capello's side and Roy Carroll's goal was only breached twice.

Failure to take all three points in the following game at home to Luxembourg was a bitter pill to swallow.

Lady Luck deserted the dominant hosts who had three goals disallowed, as well as striking the post through Chris Brunt.

Ryan McGivern's late own goal gifted the so-called minnows an unlikely draw in a game they led for 72 minutes courtesy of a classy finish from Rangers striker Dean Shiels.

Enough goalscoring opportunities were created in the following match with Azerbaijan to secure a cricket score but in the end another sucker punch in the form of Rauf Aliyev's stunning first-half strike left the Irish playing catch up.

It was record goalscorer David Healy who stepped out of the shadows to snatch a more than deserved equaliser deep in stoppage time.

So now Malta beckons on Wednesday, 6 February, ahead of home qualifiers with Russia and Israel in March.

Can Northern Ireland produce a performance on the Mediterranean island to lift spirits?

Six previous meetings have yielded up five wins and - in the last - a draw.

David Healy has scored three times, twice in friendlies, plus the decider in a World Cup qualifier back in 2001.

There are few nations Northern Ireland can boast an unbeaten record against and victory in Valletta would vanquish Michael O'Neill's frustration.

Managers often yearn for the rub of the green and O'Neill hasn't been dealt to many kind hands in his 2012 odyssey despite his passion nor indeed his dedication and meticulous preparation. Fortune may smile on him as he returns to the island where he scored his first international goal in a World Cup qualifier in 1989?

Then again, nothing is certain in the world of international football. The only guarantee is that the rollercoaster ride will continue.