One of the more surprising qualifiers for Euro 2016 are the Northern Irish who will appear in their first ever European Cup finals. The tiny country in the British Isles has been undergoing an interesting change since head coach Michael O’Neill took over in 2011 and are currently ranked the 26th best team in the world on the FIFA rankings – their highest ever position.
Despite not being given much of a chance, Northern Ireland qualified in first place from Group F to the surprise of the footballing world – the group contained Euro 2004 champions Greece and the traditionally much stronger teams of Romania and Hungary. The qualification was a huge surprise, but the 1.8 million population are now looking forward to the summer with great anticipation.
We decided to ask Northern Irish football fan Jacob Graham some questions about his nation’s qualifying feat and the expectations for the finals that will begin against Poland on 12th June at the Allianz Riviera Stadium in Nice.
Having unexpectedly qualified for Euro 2016 after finishing Group F in first place, what do you think of Northern Ireland’s chances in France this summer?
I don’t think many Northern Ireland fans are really worrying about that, they’re just ecstatic and some would even say, still in disbelief, that we will be watching little Norn Iron at a major tournament this summer. However, answering your question, I honestly believe we have the squad, the belief and the manager to get out of the group. I’m predicting a draw in the opener against Poland, a win against Ukraine then anything could happen in Paris against Germany- they’re an unbelievably good team though!
Are we right in thinking that this will be their debut on the European stage?
You are right! This summer will be our first appearance at a European Championships. Although, this is not our first appearance at a major tournament as we have qualified for three World Cups in the past, in 1958, 1982 and 1986. 30 years have dragged by and the Green and White Army (GAWA) are certainly ready to witness their nation at a major tournament once again.
Who were the stand-out players during the qualifiers – there were some tremendous results, especially in the away games – is there any particular reason for such a turnaround in fortunes?
This was Michael O’Neill’s second campaign in charge, his first one was a torrid start, however it has to be said, he was quite unlucky as we finished fifth in the group, behind Azerbaijan… We only managed to win one game. Then, after a post-season tour to South America, we witnessed Northern Ireland’s fortunes change very quickly. As you said, there were some tremendous away results, winning all but one of our away games. Ask any member of the GAWA and they will tell you that we don’t expect much when we travel across Europe to watch Our Wee Country. Some even say we aim to equalise before the other team score! Things changed dramatically in this campaign. Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis were the big players for us in this campaign, closely followed by Gareth McAuley, the rock at the back but honestly, I know most fans probably say this, but if you take a look through our squad, I can honestly not name you a player who didn’t play a part in the wonderful qualifying campaign. Lafferty’s goals got us off to an excellent start while Davis, the skipper, stepped up on that famous night against Greece when we needed him most.
It seems that the team have been handed an almost impossible group against Germany, Poland and Ukraine. Do you see the Northern Irish putting up a fight or being the whipping boys of the group?
As I said above, I don’t see us going to France and being the whipping boys. Far from that in fact. I may be optimistic but what’s the point of being any other way? Michael O’Neill is a very intelligent man, he showed that in the qualifying campaign and he will know exactly what to do in France and I have every confidence in us surprising a few and hopefully getting out of the group stages.
The Germans will be confident of topping the group – how do you see the group playing out?
I fancy Germany winning their group, they’re just too strong. Poland are very reliant on Robert Lewandowski and I believe that our defence, one of our strongest features, can keep him under tabs. Ukraine will be seeing their game against us in Lyon as their chance to put their case forward for progressing to the next stage of the competition. However, we will be seeing it as that also. They have a good team and aren’t reliant on one individual, much like ourselves. That game is going to be very important to both of us. Finally, Germany in Paris is going to be some treat. I can’t see us beating them if I’m honest, it’s too big a test but we can dream, can’t we?
Most readers will be familiar with the likes of David Healy & Aaron Hughes but are there other important players the country has had over the last few years?
Northern Irish football wasn’t in the best of states before the Euro 2016 campaign, that’s why qualification came as such as a surprise. We have always struggled for goals, since record goalscorer Healy retired we have been searching for a prolific goalscorer. Martin Paterson did a relatively good job in the last campaign but his career has gone down hill in recent years. The GAWA knew what Kyle Lafferty was capable of but we were so used to seeing it in patches. A good performance, followed by a red card was the usual pattern with Kyle. We have quite a few Premier League players in the squad now, for example: Paddy McNair, Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Steven Davis, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley. The latter four have been very important players for us in recent years and it’s a great shame that Brunt won’t get chance to play in France, he has played well for Northern Ireland over the years, especially in the last campaign.
What kind of tactics do you expect the Northern Irish to utilize in France?
It looks as though O’Neill is going to make the most of his Premier League defenders by playing three centre backs and a 5-3-2 formation. However, I am by no means convinced by this after watching this in action in the recent international friendlies. I would like to see O’Neill revert to the formation that got us to France, 4-3-3. It worked well in qualifying and I think it will work equally as well in France. However, as all the GAWA know, Michael O’Neill knows best!
Who will be the key players in the summer?
Our defence is going to be key to our hopes of getting out of the group and for that reason, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart are going to be key to Northern Ireland in France this summer. We only lost one game in qualifying and it was no coincidence that the only game which Davis missed was the loss to Romanians in Bucharest. He really makes the team gel and is a threat going forward too. Like I said, goals have always been hard to come by for Norn Iron and our big man has just joined Birmingham City so we hope he can get into some good form and be ready and firing in France.
A big thanks goes out to Manchester-based Jacob Graham for agreeing to the interview and answering our questions. If you are a fan of Northern Irish football please be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Facebook Page which is dedicated to the country’s football.