By Mark Wyatt
Northern Ireland’s qualification to Euro 2016 came as a surprise to many, with Michael O’Neil’s men eventually strolling through to France by topping Group F.
They battled the odds to reach their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and they now await their first ever European Championships. The team who were once 129th in FIFA’s world rankings and are now at a record high, 26th, finished their group with a record of six wins, three draws and just the one defeat- that coming way back in 2014 at the hands of Romania in Bucharest. Group F, which also included Hungary, Finland, the Faroe Islands and Greece, could have easily proved very difficult to navigate for Northern Ireland yet they dealt well with the pressures and consequently, got the right rewards. 2004 champions Greece, managed by Premier League sweetheart, Claudio Ranieri, for a short period, finished rock bottom of the group with Finland and the Faroe Islands the others to miss out on qualification.
Without doubt Northern Ireland’s progress was aided hugely by the goals of frontman, Kyle Lafferty, who struck seven times to top the scoring charts for Group F. Among his goals included the dramatic 93rd minute equaliser against Hungary, which proved decisive as Northern Ireland finished top by a point, having an inferior goal difference to 2nd-placed Romania too. His presence in France will be vital for the squad, who can also call upon a number of players with varying degrees of top flight football experience.
Amongst them will be defenders Jonny Evans, Chris Baird and Gareth McCauley; utility player, Paddy McNair, will have a big part to play with captain, Steven Davis, also a key component of Michael O’Neil’s plans. One man who might be sorely missed, however, is West Brom’s Chris Brunt, who misses the tournament following knee-surgery. The 54 time capped wide man was injured in a 3-2 win against Crystal Palace in the Premier League in February and is expected to be out of action for at least another 6 months.
As far as other squad members go there will be places for 31-year-old Hamilton goalkeeper Michael McGovern, Blackburn’s Corry Evans, Reading’s Oliver Norwood and Kilmarnock’s Josh Magennis, who incidentally was not even alive the last time Northern Ireland reached a major tournament. Equally valuable to the squad will be League One defender, Conor McLaughlin, who has featured multiple times in qualification.
When Northern Ireland find themselves in their training camp in Saint-Georges-de-Reneins, there will be little expectation on the side who face a tough group – just getting to the tournament is credit to the squad. Being the lowest ranked team of the entire tournament, Northern Ireland found themselves in Pot 4 alongside Wales and the Republic of Ireland. The opponents they will face in Group C will be Poland, Ukraine and current World Champions, Germany. Michael O’Neil will surely relish the chance to fare his team against some of the top nations in Europe and without doubt, tests don’t come much bigger than the world champions.
The big question is whether Northern Ireland can really upset the apple cart and mastermind a shock in France. With little pressure on their shoulders, the players will undoubtedly go out with a positive attitude in the hope that they can emulate their impressive qualification campaign form.
O’Neil has overseen some shocks before with Northern Ireland though; a 1-0 home win against Russia and a spirited 1-1 draw away at Portugal in 2013 shows that there is a chance of progressing through this group stage. Ukraine only qualified for the tournament through a play-off victory over Slovenia whereas Poland endured mixed results in their group, including one unconvincing last-minute point against Scotland.
What we can expect from the Northern Ireland squad is a spirited performance from a group of players who will fully understand that this could potentially be their only appearance at a major tournament. What lies in front of them is a chance to become even bigger heroes in their country and to test themselves against Europe’s best players.
As preparations continue, friendlies are lined up at home against Belarus and away to Slovakia at the end of May before they take on Poland in their opening game of the tournament in Nice on Sunday 12th June.