Yesterday I wrote an article about Wales’s achievement in reaching Euro 2016, but Northern Ireland’s qualification is arguably a bigger achievement, considering the calibre of player available to boss Michael O’Neill.
They sealed qualification for Euro 2016 on Thursday night with a 3-1 win against Greece, before drawing 1-1 with Finland on Sunday evening.
The draw meant that Northern Ireland also topped their group and became the first fifth seed team to win their group in the history of European Championship qualification.
Northern Ireland has a very small population with an estimated 1.8million people living in the country. That means that the pool of players available to the national team is very small, but against the odds Northern Ireland has qualified for Euro 2016, and in style as well.
Northern Ireland unlike Wales, do not have players from Real Madrid, Arsenal or even Swansea. Their squad is not populated with Premier League standard players either. Their squad is made-up of mostly players plying their trades in the lower leagues.
They do have a smattering of Premier League players in West Brom trio Christ Brunt, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis of Southampton and centre-back Craig Cathcart.
Their top scorer in qualifying Kyle Lafferty, who scored seven goals in qualifying, is struggling for first team football at Premier League Norwich. The big striker has already stated that he may need to move on in January for the sake of his international future.
Despite not having the best individual players, Northern Ireland is a fantastic team. They work so hard for each other, their manager and most importantly their fans. They have shown in qualification that anything can be achieved with sheer graft and determination.
Northern Ireland has been improving as a team in recent qualification campaigns for the big tournaments, after going through a period of struggling. In recent years there has been a marked improvement in the team.
When they were drawn in Group F alongside the likes of Greece, Hungary, Romania and Finland they must have fancied their chances of qualifying given their improvement in previous campaigns.
There was none of European football’s biggest names in the group and it seemed like a pretty even group. Despite the relatively favourable draw, I doubt many of the Green and White Army would have imagined in a million years that their team would top the group.
Boss Michael O’Neill deserves a lot of credit for the achievement. No doubt he is now regarded as a national hero. The 46-year-old did a superb job in club football with Shamrock Rovers prior to being appointed as Northern Ireland boss in 2011.
The former-Hibernian midfielder has certainly proven his managerial skills during his tenure in charge of his national team. O’Neill has been linked with a move to the SPL and also the English Championship, but qualification for Euro 2016 will delay his return to club management.
O’Neill seems to have a bright future in management and this achievement will only add to his growing reputation.
Northern Ireland has only ever featured at two major championships, at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. They have never qualified for a European Championships, so qualification was a major achievement for the country.
It seems Euro 2016 could feature up to four of the five home nations. England, Wales and Northern Ireland have now all qualified for the tournament. Republic of Ireland now faces a two-legged play-off to make it to next year’s tournament in France.
The only one of the five home nations not to have a chance of making it to next year’s European Championships is Scotland, who were in a group alongside Republic of Ireland, Germany and Poland, with the latter two qualifying from the group.
Northern Ireland’s achievement of finishing top of their group will no doubt send a message out to the rest of European football that they are no longer the pushovers they were once perceived as.
Northern Irish football is on the rise and I am sure that the national team and fans will do their country proud in France next year.
Will Northern Ireland make it to the knockout stages at Euro 2016?