Ten days ago the Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill sat at the Titanic centre on the site of Belfast’s old shipyard to announce his Euro 2016 squad and said: “The fact we are a team is the biggest thing.”
O’Neill is not the first manager to make such a claim but in his case it is indisputably true. Northern Ireland are going to France on a 12-game unbeaten run – making them the form team in Europe believe it or not – and as they displayed in their latest game, 0-0 against Slovakia on Saturday, formation, shape and discipline are foremost.
Six days earlier Slovakia had gone to Augsburg and beaten world champions Germany 3-1, but they could not breach an Irish defence which has now conceded one goal in the past five games.
Having lost established left-back Chris Brunt before the tournament, O’Neill has utilised a three-man defence which wide men Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood Town) and Stuart Dallas (Leeds United) supplement quickly when defending. The middle three O’Neill is likely to employ are Craig Cathcart (Watford) and Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans (both West Brom). That trio’s club status is significant because there is only one other Premier League regular in the squad, captain Steven Davis of Southampton.
The squad looks stronger now. We probably got there quicker than I thought. It’s a special time for the players
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill
Another player – Paddy McNair – belongs to a Premier League club in Manchester United but he has played just two full 90 minutes for United this season. However, McNair, 21, has been as impressive as anyone in green in the recent friendlies. Kyle Lafferty, contractually, was with Norwich City last season but ended up on loan at Birmingham in the Championship. He is the leading Irish scorer, but with an uncertain club future.
Such an apparently limited squad, one containing an “unattached” player in Aaron Hughes and an Irish League player in 38-year-old Roy Carroll who has just joined Linfield, is why Northern Ireland are rank outsiders. But the odds overlook the fact that two more fancied countries – Romania and Hungary – finished behind the Irish in qualification.
Northern Ireland’s competition history is another factor in the general assessment of their chances – this is their first appearance in the finals – as is their group in France. To get Germany, Poland and Ukraine would be a challenge for Spain never mind the Irish.
But in 46 year-old O’Neill, Northern Ireland have a canny, developing manager. From these disparate parts, from a squad going nowhere for years, he has moulded what he said: a team.
Asked at the Titanic if he believed this could happen, he replied: “No, I didn’t, to be honest. I saw a squad of players at a low ebb, who’d finished qualification poorly for Euro 2012. I also saw a group of players that needed change.
“The squad looks stronger now, the team looks stronger, even people coming off the bench are making an impact. We probably got there quicker than I thought. It’s a special time for the players. While we want to go and enjoy it, we want to create new histories as well.”