Many expected Euro 2016 to be a bridge too far for Northern Ireland – but those who wrote Michael O’Neill’s men off did so at their peril.
The Green and White Army cheered their side on to a last-16 finish, as the underdogs swept aside Ukraine and almost left some of the continent’s most highly-ranked sides looking red faced. And here’s why it could get even better for Norn Iron in the next few years.
They’ve played – and won – at a major tournament
It stands to reason that every international tournament a player features in, the more experienced and prepared they are the next time one rolls around.
Plenty of this Northern Ireland squad will have the chance to qualify for future Euros and World Cups, with nine members of their squad in France still 25 or under. And not only have they got experience of a major competition under their belt – they’ve also produced a great victory on the big stage.
Their 2-0 defeat of Ukraine was a masterclass of counter-attacking football, as Michael O’Neill’s men picked off the Euro 2012 co-hosts with a couple of superbly-worked goals, backed up by an outstanding defensive display. And as for facing the World Champions…
Norn Iron faced Europe’s finest – and almost matched them
The group stage may have yielded just those three points over Ukraine, but O’Neill’s charges were beaten by the narrowest of margins against World Champions Germany and conceded just once against Poland – the highest scorers in Euro 2016 qualifying.
In both matches, O’Neill’s men were defensively robust and set up cleverly to allow their more illustrious opponents the lions’ share of possession, while ensuring – for the most part – that they couldn’t get behind the Norn Iron defence.
Admittedly they struggled to create too many chances in those two games, but if they can continue to keep some of world football’s best sides down to a single goal, then there’s always the chance of snatching one at the other end. After all…
Their strike force will only improve
As we head into next season, Conor Washington and Will Grigg will both be plying their trade in the Championship – the highest level either have played at. Meanwhile, young talent Caolan Lavery – who narrowly missed out on the squad – is likely to finally get his chance at that level with Sheffield Wednesday, after a slew of loans to lower-league clubs.
With several of their up-and-coming strikers now playing at an improved standard and a likelihood of all the squad continuing to develop under the inspirational Michael O’Neill, we could well see Norn Iron improve on the 16-goal total which saw them head to France as top dogs in their qualifying group.
With the likes of San Marino and Azerbaijan in their qualifying group for World Cup 2018 – and fellow groupmates Germany having only narrowly defeated them last time out – Northern Ireland could be a hugely popular bet to reach the finals in Russia at 8/1.
Meanwhile, it’s 33/1 that they qualify for another major tournament in top spot. With tournament experience under their belt, a superb defence and Will Grigg on fire, it’s certainly not impossible that they’ll pip Germany to the post.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.