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Northern Ireland - Kings of Qualifying

Monday 12th October 2015
After a two year campaign, Northern Ireland beat former European Champions Greece to qualify for next Summer's tournament in France. When they arrive next June, it will have been thirty years since their last appearance at a major competition. With five wins helping them sail through the group, it has truly been one of the great stories of recent times in International football.

When Michael O'Neill took over as Manager in early 2012, he took on the hopes of a desperate nation looking for a trip to a tournament on foreign shores. And that hope was certainly more abundant than expectation as it took O'Neill ten games for find his first win in charge. A creditable draw in Portugal and excellent win against Russia seemed more of a consolation than a prophecy for future success. Nonetheless, O'Neill signed a two year contract extension in November 2013 and fortunes certainly began to change.

Two late goals in Budapest set the precedent for the rest of Euro 2016 qualifying as Hungary became the first of several teams to be humbled by the new found confidence of Northern Ireland. One of those late goals, the winner, was scored by Kyle Lafferty. Lafferty has cemented his place as one of the great talismans associated with the green jersey, the first since record goal scorer David Healy. Despite not playing regularly at club level, Lafferty scored in all five of Northern Ireland's victories and exceeded previous expectations of him as a prolific front man. He can now be mentioned in the same breath as Muller and Lewandowski as a leading marksman in qualifying.
A team capable of scoring goals can only be successful if the defence act as a strong and dependable rear-guard, a combination Michael O'Neill and his coaching staff have instilled in the team. Having only conceded more than one goal on a single occasion, a 2-0 defeat in Romania, the Irish have ensured that there was a chance of taking points in each game. A opportunity that more often than not, has been grasped with both hands.

Of all the contributory factors towards this remarkable campaign, the vast experience throughout the squad is one of the most crucial. Captain Steven Davis has seventy seven caps, Chris Baird has seventy five and two members of the miserly defence, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt, are well over fifty. Several other members of the squad have over forty caps too. As a group, they have tasted the disappointment of failing to mount a serious challenge in qualifying for several years. But instead of accepting another campaign with the title of minnows, then Northern Irish team have used their experience to remarkably qualify in comfortable fashion.
A group of players being proud and determined to represent their country is a breath of fresh air in football, with devout loyalty edging towards being a thing of the past. And this is reflected by the atmosphere any home game at Windsor Park. There are no fans more faithful than the members of the green and white army, who celebrate each goal as if their team scoring will never happen again.

Now those fans will have the opportunity to finally travel and watch Northern Ireland take on the very best in European football, with a final draw in Finland enough to secure a place at the top of the group and put the seal on a triumphant couple of years.

It does remain to be seen whether they can make a real impact on the tournament and many, if not all, supporters in Northern Ireland won't care in the slightest. But if the same level of measured attack, resolute defence and commitment to the shirt is maintained, there is always a hope.
James Dean
A lover of football. Season ticket holder at Sheffield Wednesday and known as the "Andrea Pirlo of the North".

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