Northern Ireland faces tough task at Euro 2016


Northern Ireland's Steve Davis, centre, celebrates scoring against Greece in a recent game. (John McVitty/AP)

You could hardly excuse young Northern Ireland fans of not being terribly familiar with their team’s “glory years,” when it qualified for back to back World Cups, reaching the second round in 1982. Northern Ireland’s last appearance at a major tournament was at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. A lot has happened since then, including the country just failing to secure a playoff spot in the qualifiers for Euro ’96 on goal difference. But after a lengthy wait, they’re back on one of the game’s biggest stages, ready to show the world that qualifying for their first European Championship wasn’t a fluke.

Goalkeepers: Roy Carroll (Notts County), Michael McGovern (Hamilton), Alan Mannus (St. Johnstone)
Defenders: Craig Cathcart (Watford), Jonny Evans (West Brom), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), Luke McCullough (Doncaster Rovers), Aaron Hughes (Melbourne City), Lee Hodson (MK Dons), Chris Baird (Fulham), Paddy McNair (Manchester United)
Midfielders: Steven Davis (Southampton), Oliver Norwood (Reading), Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest), Stuart Dallas (Leeds United), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Shane Ferguson (Millwall)
Forwards: Will Grigg (Wigan Athletic), Kyle Lafferty (Norwich City), Conor Washington (Queens Park Rangers), Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock)

Michael O’Neill scored four goals in 34 appearances for Northern Ireland as a player before retiring and eventually going into coaching in 2006. He won the league title twice with Dublin club Shamrock Rovers—and took the side into the group stage of the UEFA Europa League—before taking over the national team five years ago. The team showed promise under O’Neill in the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, before catching everybody by surprise by coming good to qualify for Euro 2016

4-3-3: (GK) McGovern – (D) Cathcart, McAuley, Evans, Hodson – (M) Baird, Davis, Norwood – (F) Dallas, Lafferty, Ward

MORE ON EURO 2016: Sportsnet has you covered with in-depth coverage of Euro 2016 in France, which runs from June 10 to July 10.

Match schedule || Group standings || Live scoreboard || Roster lists
Profiles: All 24 teams || History of Euro || Top 10 moments in Euro history

June 12: vs. Poland in Bordeaux
June 16: vs. Ukraine in Lyon
June 21 vs. Germany in Paris

Northern Ireland qualified for its first ever European Championship by winning a difficult qualifying group that included Romania and Hungary, two other teams who’ll compete in France this summer. Northern Ireland edged out Romania by a single point for first place, this despite dropping a 2-1 decision in Bucharest, their only loss from 10 group stage games.

Manager Michael O’Neill is not tied to one tactical system—he used a number of different formations during the qualifiers, showing off his adaptability and game-management skills. He’s also been able to inspire his charges to play so far over their heads, squeezing every last drop of talent he can out of the player resources at his disposal.

Save for a few, Northern Ireland’s squad is mostly made up of players who ply their trade in the English and Scottish lower leagues. He simply doesn’t have the player quality or depth of talent to compete against the top European nations—and it doesn’t help matters they’ve been drawn into a group with Germany and Poland.

Kyle Lafferty: Northern Ireland’s chief scoring threat, the Norwich City man was his country’s top scorer in the qualifiers with seven goals.

Steven Davis: An ultra-reliable midfielder who gives Northern Ireland a steadying presence in the centre of the park. The captain played in all but one of his country’s qualifying games.

Craig Cathcart: A solid central defender who can also play on either defensive flank, he’s been a regular starter and key player for Watford the past two seasons.

Can they even take a single point in the first round? Their opening match of the group stage is a tough one against a high-scoring Poland side. Then they face Ukraine before meeting World Cup champions Germany in the finale. It’s not inconceivable that they could be eliminated by the time they have to face the Germans. Any points they can claim in their first two games would be huge.

You have to admire the spirit and fight Northern Ireland displayed in qualifying for Euro 2016. But the harsh reality will soon settle in for them. They’ve been placed in a pretty difficult group, and if they need points going into their final game against Germany in order to move on, well… Their lack of experience and the genuine gap in player quality is going to catch up with them in France. They won’t even sneak through as one of the third-place teams.


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