Decades from now future generations may look back at 2016 and remember it as the year of the underdog. Leicester winning the Premier League is an achievement that will forever be seared into the consciousness of football fans, throw in the fact that the upcoming European Championships looks set to be the most open international tournament in living memory and there is the real opportunity for yet another upset.
Germany and Spain look considerably diminished, hosts France always look a poor twenty minutes from implosion and the rest all look much of a muchness. In this void, Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, will look to spring a sporting surprise.
Without the illustrious names that the England squad can boast or Wales’ match-winning genius Gareth Bale, Northern Ireland have compensated by utilising an unshakable team spirit married to a work ethic of Trojan proportions. The story of qualification is so fanciful it sounds like something from a J.R.R Tolkien novel; having not qualified for a major tournament since the 1982 World Cup, with a squad comprised mainly of lower league players with a few scatterings of mid-table Premier League stars the task of qualifying once again looked beyond the small nation. When you factor in that the talisman and main goal threat Kyle Lafferty played more fixtures in the international arena than on the domestic front you start to understand just how colossal an achievement it was for the fifth seeds to top their group amassing a laudable twenty-one points – a feat never before performed.
Aside from the fact that O’Neill is clearly a shrewd operator, he has also benefited from the occasional kiss from Lady Luck, a romance that looks set to continue blossoming. The overreliance on Kyle Lafferty is a clear issue, but one that looks set to be less worrisome with the emergence of two striking talents Connor Washington of Queens Park Rangers and Wigan Athletic’s Will Grigg, the man responsible for the season’s best chant “Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified” to the tune of Freed from Desire by Gala. All three of the attackers scored in the farewell match inside Winsor Park, where O’Neill’s men beat Belarus, extending the unbeaten run to an enviable eleven games (six wins and five draws). The additional options the two young talents can provide may prove crucial to a side that at times can look woefully bereft of guile and imagination.
Landed in Group C alongside Germany, Ukraine and Poland the first task on the agenda is solidifying a defensive unit that must repel word-class attacking threats. Predators like Muller, Lewandowski and Konoplyanka. The men looking to demonstrate that they are equal to the task and protect the Hamilton goalkeeper Michael McGovern, will most likely be Craig Cathcart (Watford), Johnny Evans (West Brom), Gareth McAuley (West Brom) and Chris Baird (Derby) with able deputies coming in the shape of Manchester United’s Paddy McNair and veteran Aaron Hughes who currently is without a club.
The objective of the midfield will undoubtedly to form a second defensive phalanx whilst still having the energy to make regular sorties into opposition territory. Southampton’s Steven Davis will be expected to set the tempo for fellow midfielders Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Oliver Norwood (Reading), Shane Ferguson (Millwall), and screener Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers). Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forrest) and Stuart Dallas (Leeds) can be relied upon to enter the fray on either flank as the game progresses and oppositions tire. The injury induced absence of West Brom’s Chris Brunt and his explosive left-foot will be keenly felt. Not only is the Baggies man versatile enough to be deployed in a number of areas, covering a multitude of different sins, he is also a natural leader capable of inspiring those around him.
Even the most optimistic of fans would reluctantly admit that the chances of progressing to the knock-out rounds are going to require a Herculean effort. However, this group of players have made their reputation by being a side that laughs in the face of convention and cuts a track to tread their own path. The Northern Irish population are already in dreamland and with the expansion of the tournament there is every chance that O’Neill and his men can confound the doubters and allow their nation to enjoy a few more hours of peaceful slumber.