Northern Ireland success will be tempered by Euro 2016 tournament
“How have we done it? I’m not really sure. The players deserve the ultimate credit.” Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill could be forgiven for rubbing his eyes in disbelief time and again during the Euro 2016 qualification campaign.
It’s been 33 years since Northern Ireland graced a major tournament, but that long wait ends next summer and entirely on merit. A 3-1 home victory over Greece was earned, despite suspensions for key forward Kyle Lafferty and versatile veteran Chris Baird, plus injury to defender Jonny Evans.
Southampton midfielder Steven Davis stepped up in their absence to bag a brace against the Euro 2004 winners, whose own dismal campaign speaks volumes about the declining quality of opposition, but nothing should be taken away from Northern Ireland’s achievement.
Basking in the glory of this historic qualification, O’Neill added: “The players were outstanding. Right through the team, they were magnificent. This shows the potential of this team and of football in Northern Ireland.”
Note the word potential. Against a Greek outfit perhaps at an all-time low, youth goalkeeper turned right back turned striker Josh Magennis, far from prolific for Scottish Premiership pair Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, also found the target.
Looking objectively, much that has been written about England during Euro 2016 qualifying could just as easily apply to Northern Ireland. It’s not meant to downplay what they’ve done, but a reality check is coming around the corner.
Joining Greece as contenders to advance from Group F were Finland, Hungary and Romania – all of these countries have had Golden Generations, but this is not their time.
It’s been more than a half century since Ferenc Puskas’ Magical Magyars wowed Europe, while Gheorghe Hagi emerged from a Romania ensemble cast of cult heroes in the 1990s. Finland favourites like Sami Hyypia are all retired now, and it’s a similar story with those Greeks that triumphed in Portugal against all odds.
Northern Ireland can only beat the opposition put in front of them, however diminished from their halcyon days they might be. It’s important to keep things in perspective, though. Euro 2016 is going to be tough for a nation that, perhaps more so than any other British Isles side, has the least strength in depth.
O’Neill can thus ill-afford injuries and suspensions on the scale of the Greece game against the big boys at the tournament finals. Age may also be a factor, especially at the back with defensive duo Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley both turning 36 between now and then.
Just six players in the current squad being contracted to Premier League clubs also hints a gulf in quality that, while bridged in a easy qualifying pool, will be a huge problem when coming up against Europe’s elite. Emerging talents like Manchester United prodigy Paddy McNair will need to try and make the step up.
With Northern Ireland massive 200/1 outsiders in the Euro 2016 outright betting with Coral, three outings at the France finals will be a novel yet sobering experience for a passionate set of supporters, who would be well-advised to hold little or no expectation.