When I set out this article to praise Northern Ireland, I hesitated to use the word ‘minnows’ in the title. The reason for my hesitation being that I did not want to insult anybody attached to the nation.
However, in footballing terms, Northern Ireland are a minnow. When you look at the population, resources and amount of players available to boss Michael O’Neill, it is incredible what they have achieved over the last few years.
If you did not know Northern Ireland have all-but sealed a World Cup play-off spot after a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic. The way the team have overachieved in the last few years speaks volumes for the team and that man O’Neill.
Incredible that O’Neill is still boss
For me, I am very surprised that a club team has not poached O’Neill by now. To help Northern Ireland to the last Euros and last 16 of the competition was a big feat for former Shamrock Rovers boss.
Most Northern Ireland fans would admit that their best players are not the best players in the world. However, O’Neill through sheer hard work and tactical nous has moulded them into a very good unit.
Some have criticised their style of player, but they are simply cutting their cloth accordingly. If O’Neill had Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi available to him, I am sure he would play a more expansive style of football.
Hard work and team spirit
The key to O’Neill’s success has been the fact that the players want to play for him and their country. Most players seem to give their all and there is no pre-madonnas in the squad, just a Jonny Evans and a Chris Brunt.
Like most minnows that achieve big things, their success is based on sheer hard work and team spirit. Theirs is the sort of team spirit that is missing from some of the bigger footballing nations in the international game.
Many teams have more individuals that are talented in international football. However, few teams in the world game can quite match Northern Ireland for their work ethic and team spirit. If you could bottle that, you could make a fortune.
Only two of the current squad ply their trade in the English Premier League (Brunt and Evans), while there is also five SPL players available to O’Neill. The majority of their squad play in the lower leagues of English football, which makes their success in the last few years even more impressive.
Can they make the World Cup?
It would be fantastic for Northern Ireland to qualify for the World Cup. They were never going to qualify for the finals automatically, not with Germany in the same group.
However, they are now all but certain of a place in the play-offs. The play-offs give O’Neill’s side a big opportunity to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years. For the 48-year-old to guide his team to the World Cup after their achievements in the latest Euros would be a massive achievement.
The only down side if Northern Ireland did make it to the World Cup would be that their boss would be a target for many English and Scottish clubs next summer.
Northern Ireland have no doubt over-achieved in the last few years. They are a shining example for countries of a similar size of what can be achieved through clever management and hard work.
I just wish as an Englishman that our players cared and our boss was as tactically astute as Northern Ireland’s. As if they did and he was then maybe we could finally achieve something. Instead of making poor excuses every time the team fails at a major tournament.
However, it would be folly to end an article on England’s misgivings. Let us celebrate Northern Ireland and everybody connected with the team.
They should be immensely proud of everybody in the national team set-up. Hopefully, they will be gracing Russia 2018, as they deserve their place at next year’s final.
Will Northern Ireland make it to World Cup 2018?
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