From Ballymena to Belfast, Northern Ireland is buzzing with excitement ahead of the country’s first ever European Championship appearance. The Green and White Army secured Group F’s top spot in qualifying, to end their 30-year wait for a place at a major tournament, in spectacular style.
And despite landing themselves in a tough Euro 2016 group, Michael O’Neill’s men will not be content to just make up the numbers. Unbeaten in over a year, they’ve proved a match for anyone on the continent. Here’s why they’re set to impress in France this summer.
Kyle Lafferty and emerging stars up front
There’s no doubt that experienced forward Lafferty is the side’s most potent attacking threat.
The man from Enniskillen netted an impressive seven goals in nine outings during qualifying, including crucial late strikes in the 2-1 away win and 1-1 home draw against Hungary.
However, he’s been joined in the provisional Euros squad by several exciting additions, including Will Grigg, who netted 28 times last season for Wigan Athletic.
With O’Neill set to blend experienced goalscorers with in-form talents like Grigg and Ross County’s tricky forward Liam Boyce, Group E opponents Germany, Poland, and Ukraine will underestimate the Norn Iron frontline at their peril.
They’ve been in excellent form
After falling to a 1-0 friendly defeat against Scotland in March 2015, this steely Northern Irish side have proved themselves impossible to beat – for opponents across the continent, and even further afield.
Their current 10-game unbeaten run includes wins over Euro 2004 winners Greece, Slovenia and Finland – amongst others – while they held Romania, Wales, and Qatar to draws.
Germany could well prove a tougher test than anything O’Neill’s men faced in qualifying, but they have lost four times in the past year, with Poland and Ukraine also having tasted defeat in that time. As for Northern Ireland…
They never, ever give up
It’s easy to resort to clichés about ‘fighting spirit’ and ‘hard work’ when discussing an underdog, but with Northern Ireland, those things aren’t just soundbites – they’re traits that are there for all to see.
At 1-0 down in Hungary with 10 minutes remaining, they somehow snatched all three points against a side who had lost one home game in the previous 18 months – thanks to goals from Niall McGinn and Lafferty.
That was followed by a tricky 3-1 win at the Faroe Islands, with Gareth McAuley and Lafferty turning the game around in the final 20 minutes, to beat a Faroes side who had just completed the feat of back-to-back wins over Greece.
The side’s steel and resilience means they’re more than the sum of their parts. And there’s one man who deserves special credit for that fact.
O’Neill has produced a managerial masterclass
“The atmosphere in the squad has been down to Michael [O’Neill]…tactically his knowledge is excellent and anything that he tells us has a method behind it.”
They’re the words of Steven Davis – a man who knows a thing or two about O’Neill’s methods, having featured nine times in Euro 2016 qualifying. And it’s pretty high praise from a man who’s played under the likes of Ronald Koeman, Mauricio Pochettino and Walter Smith.
But it isn’t just as a man-manager that the former Shamrock Rovers boss has excelled.
He’s got the tactics spot-on for the men in green and white – switching between a cautious 4-5-1 system for away trips to the likes of Greece, and plumping for a more forward-thinking 4-3-3 formation when they have hosted the likes of Finland. And again and again, his tactical decisions have paid off.
They have a solid defence who provide goals
Albania reached this tournament without a single striker netting more than once for the Shqiponjat in qualification. Reading that stat highlights the incredible achievements of Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley, who scored three times en route to the Euros.
But the veteran centre-backs bullet headers’ aren’t the only thing this defence have to boast about. They conceded just eight times in ten matches in qualifying, and incredibly, haven’t shipped more than two goals in a game since September 2013 – 21 games ago.
With Germany and Poland both having conceded more in their journey to the finals, don’t be surprised to see Northern Ireland sneak a result against either side.
Northern Ireland’s first game of Euro 2016 is against Poland, and with a 60 per cent record of both teams scoring in each team’s 10 qualifying games, 5/4 for BTTS in this clash could represent a very smart bet.
Meanwhile, O’Neill’s side look excellent value to qualify from the group at 2/1.
It’s a 14/1 shot Northern Ireland reach the quarter finals before elimination, while it’s 40/1 they bow out at the semi-final stage – both of which seem reasonable punts, considering the side’s exceptional form of late.
With an excellent qualifying campaign under their belt, a range of talented strikers in their ranks, and a defence who can hold tight and grab a few goals at the other end – who would bet against Norn Iron reaching the latter stages of this competition?
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.