Just over four years ago on an evening in Amsterdam the task that lay ahead of Michael O’Neill became frighteningly clear. Northern Ireland had been beaten 6-0 by the Netherlands, the first time they had shipped half a dozen goals in 51 years, in a warm up friendly for Euro 2012 where the Oranje were one of the favourites for the tournament.
For O’Neill it was a precursor to a World Cup qualifying campaign that was equally disastrous, Northern Ireland finished second from bottom of their group, just a point above Luxembourg. The IFA could have swung the axe but some promising performances handed O’Neill a stay of execution heading into qualifying for Euro 2016.
O’Neill’s Northern Ireland travelled to Hungary for the first game of that process with the manager fearing for his job but now, 20 months later, the 46 year old, the first catholic to manage a nation tarnished with a history of segregation, now has the region fully united and is gearing himself up to lead his country into their first major tournament for 30 years.
O’Neill faces no questions marks over his future now having been made Northern Ireland’s highest-paid coach in history with a new four-year contract signed in March, but his immediate focus will lie on France where Northern Ireland head on a record unbeaten run and backed by almost 30,000 supporters.
Holland, incidentally, will not be there with them and it represents a remarkable transition guided by O’Neill who has picked in his squad just 8 survivors from the 23 that were humiliated out in the Dutch capital. They qualified having lost just once in their 10 games with a team that proved supremely effective at stifling their opposition and, in a group that contains Poland, Ukraine and world champions Germany, they will have to be good at it here. As O’Neill says, “We’re going to have to be horrible to play against”.
That will inevitably conjure thoughts of negative football but as O’Neill is aware he is left with little choice but to set up content to allow the opposition see most of the ball. Of the 24 teams in France only Iceland have a smaller pool of players to choose from and the majority of their 23-man squad ply their trade in the second or third tiers of English football.
O’Neill is aware his team have little answer the eye-catching talents littered throughout the Germany side, or the likes of Robert Lewandowski of Poland or Andriy Yarmolenko and Yehven Konoplyanka with Ukraine. It will mean working hard for each other, “we are going to have to run further than any other team” he said, but he has righteous faith in his team’s ability to play. Captain Steven Davis regularly pulled the strings in Ronald Koeman’s excellent Southampton side of last season while his midfield partner Oliver Norwood has attracted interest from Swansea and Bournemouth after impressing for Reading.
On the left Stuart Dallas is a tricky winger who can produce a wicked cross provided he does not get too occupied with trying to repeatedly beat his man. On the end of those balls they hope will be Kyle Lafferty, the striker who has just 4 goals to his name at club level across the last 2 seasons but turns into a different beast in the green and white shirt. Lafferty scored 7 of their 16 goals in qualifying and the 28 year old’s tireless energy is crucial in working the channels to provide his midfield with a runner to target with an out-ball.
Imagine the concern then when the Norwich City striker limped out of training on Tuesday which O’Neill was quick to allay as “just a little twist”. The manager does have viable alternatives, with Nottingham Forest’s Jamie Ward, who is likely to play as an industrious winger on the right, a relentless runner who leads the defensive effort from the front and Conor Washington of QPR, the 24 year old who worked as a postman during the last European Championships but goes into this one with 2 goals to his name from 3 caps, his first strike a fine goal in the friendly with Slovenia.
Making up the attacking group is Josh Magennis, a 25 year old who started his career at Cardiff as a goalkeeper, and, of course, there is Wigan’s Will Grigg, who enters the tournament serenaded by a chant that has reached number 7 in the iTunes chart. Grigg hit 28 goals in Wigan’s League One promotion campaign but is often used as an impact sub by O’Neill and can’t replicate Lafferty’s talismanic influence regardless of how much he is on fire.
For the attack to have their say however the defence is going to have be just as integral. The back-line will be marshalled by Johnny Evans and Gareth McAuley of West Bromwich Albion, but it is the loss of a third West Brom player, Chris Brunt falling victim to an ACL rupture, that has forced O’Neill to experiment between a back 3 and a back 4.
At the age of 36 and with a century of caps, Aaron Hughes may not necessarily play but his peerless experience will be invaluable around the squad. His guidance will definitely be of aid to the likes of Conor McLaughlin, playing at right-back after a season fighting relegation in League One with Fleetwood Town, or Lee Hodson, the Milton Keynes Dons defender who may get the nod at left-back in the absence of Brunt.
Though O’Neill may opt for experience at full-back and ask Derby County’s versatile Chris Baird to play there and have Paddy McNair, at 21 the youngest player in the squad but a strong, physical performer whenever handed the chance by Manchester United, protect the back four from his more natural position of defensive midfield.
McNair’s role will be hugely vital as it is down to him to break-up play while freeing up Davis who will attempt to get Northern Ireland moving forward. The five-man midfield was extremely difficult to break down in qualifying and if they can be solid here when soaking up pressure before growing into matches, the Green and White army can realistically target the last 16. Then “the fun really starts” says O’Neill who can already enjoy his trips to Nice, Lyon and Paris as a reward for an incredible four years of work.
With the story of Leicester City still fresh in the memory, who knows how far Northern Ireland can go?