Northern Ireland arrive in France on a wave of optimism and renewed self-belief, after years in international football’s wilderness. Michael O’Neill has defied expectations in taking the self-styled Green and White Army to their first ever European Championship.
The players gave Windsor Park some of its greatest nights during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, but a bigger challenge awaits when they rub shoulders with Europe’s elite in the shape of Poland, Ukraine and world champions Germany. O’Neill and his men have been deservedly lauded for their achievements, but can they go one better and give the fans a tournament experience to remember?
Can they really ESCAPE THE group?
On paper, their three Group C games look as though they’ll provide the sternest possible examination of Northern Ireland’s European Championship credentials. Nobody is expecting them to claim three points against Germany, but then you wouldn’t have found too many Republic of Ireland fans predicting Shane Long to come on as a substitute and strike a winner against Joachim Low’s side.
Northern Ireland’s realistic hope is that they’ll qualify by squeezing through as one of the better third-placed teams, which will probably require four points. With that in mind, a point against Poland in the opener on June 12 would represent a good start, as defeating Ukraine – who lie just four places ahead of them in the FIFA World Rankings in 22nd – is well within the realms of possibility.
If the first two games don’t go as planned, a date with Germany is certainly a daunting prospect, but Northern Ireland aren’t entirely unaccustomed to pulling off major tournament shocks against one of the favourites – as Gerry Armstrong and the band of 1982 will attest. A baptism of fire may look inevitable to many onlookers, but don’t rule out O’Neill’s men from emulating Billy Bingham’s World Cup heroes.
What they’ve learned
It’s worth remembering that, during the 2-1 win over Finland at Windsor Park in March 2015, captain Steven Davis was forced off at half-time due to injury. By that stage Northern Ireland were 2-0 up and cruising, thanks to a Kyle Lafferty brace, but Davis’s withdrawal was followed by an unconvincing second half in which the hosts allowed Finland back into the game, with a late goal making for a nervy finish.
It was clear that Northern Ireland didn’t adjust adequately to playing without their leader. That’s something they can’t afford to repeat in France, should Davis suffer a similar blow.
Depth in defence
Throughout his tenure, O’Neill has not only established defensive organisation; he has made the team tactically flexible. Northern Ireland look comfortable playing either with four at the back or three accompanied by wing-backs. That ability to re-shape may prove to be a critical ingredient when they’re pitted against the three different playing styles of their opponents.
During the qualifying campaign, experienced centre-back pairing Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley played out of their skins to ensure Norn Iron conceded only eight goals in their 10 games, and Craig Cathcart has mirrored his fine form for Watford to provide O’Neill with another consistent performer.
Conor McLaughlin and Stuart Dallas provide energy, creativity and defensive knowhow down the flanks, Manchester United’s Paddy McNair has shown he can play as a holding midfielder as well as in defence, and there’s also utility man Chris Baird to call upon if needed (not to mention the veteran Aaron Hughes). O’Neill isn’t short of options at the back.
Goal miners wanted
He may have struck seven times in qualifying but there’s a question mark over Lafferty, who continues to struggle at club level. Playing for his country seems to bring out the best in him, but relying on the Norwich misfit for goals doesn’t sit comfortably when one thinks of the quality of defenders he’ll come up against at Euro 2016.
The sudden emergence of the impressive Conor Washington may provide fresh impetus for Lafferty in terms of competition. Still, it’s hard to envisage Northern Ireland scoring a barrage of goals. O’Neill will be hoping for goalscoring contributions from players such as Oliver Norwood and Jamie Ward, who have struck just twice in 52 combined appearances.
It’s impossible to look past Davis as the player who will ignite the Northern Irish charge this summer. He is the midfield’s heartbeat and one of the most intelligent users of the ball you’ll find across the 24 competing nations. At 31, Davis has just completed arguably the greatest season of his career for both club and country, and he was truly exceptional throughout the qualifying campaign.
He can sit in front of the defence but the Southampton man is an outstanding weapon in attack, too. His vision and passing range have been key components for Northern Ireland, and of late he has also found a previously hidden eye for goal, scoring three times in two games at the end of Saints’ season as they surged impressively to sixth place in the Premier League.
Playing in the Premier League week in, week out has helped Davis to develop a superior technical command of the game, and it’s something he always uses when donning the green jersey for his country. His reticent demeanour shouldn’t fool you – he’s a born leader and a strong voice in O’Neill’s dressing room.
Northern Ireland already owe a great deal to O’Neill. Having taken the reins from Nigel Worthington four-and-a-half years ago, his tenure’s nadir came in the autumn of 2013 with consecutive defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. But since then he has hauled the country from new lows to exhilarating new highs. He is tactically astute, and everyone in football has respect for what he has achieved with this group of players.
Whatever happens in France, O’Neill deserves to be hailed as a hero for the turnaround in fortunes that he has engineered. His managerial career is looking brighter than ever.