[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter winning only one of their ten World Cup qualifying fixtures before last summer’s tournament in Brazil and finishing below Azerbaijan in Group F, few would have believed the current state of play for the Northern Irish football team.
A commanding 3-1 home win over Greece on Thursday night ensured that the modest country of some 1.8 million have qualified for Euro 2016 and are looking likely to top their group in the process.
The turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous for Michael O’Neill’s men, who have displayed a collective ability much higher than the sum of the individual parts and pulled together to overcome the odds.
With a trip to Finland the last game of the qualification process on Sunday night, the Green and White Army have won six of their nine games in the competition build-up, scoring 15 goals in the process and outplaying countries who will have expected nothing less than three points.
The trip to France next summer will be the first time Northern Ireland has competed at a European Championships, complementing World Cup outings in 1958, 1982 and 1986.
The days of favourite son George Best seem long gone, while the Windsor Park faithful have had to wait 30 long years for participation at a major tournament.
In that time there have been standout results including victories at home over Spain and England, with David Healy sending the nation’s ardent fans into rapture – but the required continuity and consistency have been lacking to secure qualification.
Looking at the players at O’Neill’s disposal currently, the 46-year-old should be applauded for forging a stellar team spirit that has bred results.
Other countries in Northern Ireland’s group for Euro 2016 qualification boast players employed by heavyweight European clubs such as Roma, Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool and Benfica; Northern Ireland’s squad consists of players from Kilmarnock, Fleetwood Town and Doncaster Rovers.
The Premier League contingent of the national squad including captain Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt have been essential and added experience to a group most consisting of players from the Football League.
In Kyle Lafferty, McNeill has found a goalscorer in the Healy-mould; a journeyman at club level but a talisman in the green of his country.
Thursday night goalscorer Josh Magennis netted his first international goal against Greece, with the striker’s rise to prominence all the more noteworthy given that he started his career as a goalkeeper.
Northern Ireland will be well supported in France but be at long odds to do anything other than be eliminated in the group stage – but for the progression of the game in the country, participation is key.
Getting the 30-year monkey of collective backs is a real milestone, while come World Cup qualification O’Neill’s men will have more belief and a better ranking in an effort to make Russia 2018.
For a country that has been defined and forged by the Troubles and a political tug-of-war that has generated consistent negative press, the exploits of the national football team have a galvanising effect in forging pride and a national identity for the people.
The fairytale story will continue in France next summer, with every reason for optimism and jubilation for the travelling green and white army.
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