Northern Ireland, Euro 2016 and the chance to end a 30-year wait

Northern Ireland have never played in the European Championships before. In fact, you have to go back to 1986 for the last time the nation played at a major tournament; one of three appearances at a World Cup.

For a country of roughly 1.8 million it is clearly not easy to compete with the more established European footballing sides and there certainly have been dark days for the Green and White Army over the years.

A lack of consistency has generally been the major problem, with a positive result negated by two or three underwhelming performances. A run of ten consecutive games without scoring a goal in the early 2000’s was the lowest point.

Despite a period of almost thirty years without qualifying for a major tournament, it has not all been doom and gloom.

Northern Ireland claimed famous victories over both England and Spain in qualifying campaigns under Lawrie Sanchez in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

Regardless of a squad comprised of players employed predominantly by clubs in the English Football League and Scottish Premier League, the collective can amount to more than the sum of the parts at times.

Michael O’Neill’s men have been drawn in a competitive group in Euro 2016 qualifying alongside Romania, Hungary, Finland, Greece and the Faroe Islands.

Given that the side only managed one win in ten qualifying fixtures for the 2014 World Cup, expectation was not high before this campaign – but the football community has been pleasantly surprised by Northern Ireland’s efforts thusfar.

Away wins against Hungary and Greece and a victory at Windsor Park against the Faroes comprised a perfect start, while the side were beaten 2-0 last week away in Romania in a plucky display.

Regardless of defeat in Bucarest, positivity is the overarching feeling surrounding the squad and the nation’s chances of participating in France in two years’ time.

Kyle LaffertyUnlike World Cup qualifying, there is a real togetherness in the squad and O’Neill has seemingly finally settled into his role as the country’s chief after a slow start in the hot seat.

Looking at the talent at the former Shamrock Rovers manager’s disposal will not inspire huge confidence in some, but the aptitude and effort shown by the team so far cannot be faulted.

After a couple of victories the confidence of the players on the ball has noticeably improved, while belief is building that if the squad stick together qualification is a real possibility.

David Healy scored all four goals in the afore-mentioned victories over England and Spain almost a decade ago, but in Kyle Lafferty Northern Ireland have unearthed a dangerous forward capable of leading their line.

The Norwich City striker has scored in all three victories so far this time round, taking his goal tally for his country to 12.

Quite surprisingly, the 27-year-old can become Northern Ireland’s second-highest ever goalscorer with two more strikes and has already scored more international goals than George Best in a similar number of caps.

Experienced Premier League campaigners such as Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes, Chris Brunt and captain Steven Davis add a steadying hand, while the younger players have shown no fear when thrown in at the deep end.

With nine points amassed, realistically Northern Ireland’s home form will decide if they can make it to France; win three of the four remaining games at Windsor Park and the side will surely qualify.

Uefa’s decision to increase the number of participating teams at the tournament from 16 to 24 has been the subject of criticism in some quarters, with the qualifying process scrutinised as a result.

However, for Northern Ireland a strong campaign and the increased participation could well end a very long wait and go down in history for a proud nation and its passionate fanbase.

By
I am a freelance football journalist from Northern Ireland living in Broome in Western Australia. I have worked for top media outlets such as FourFourTwo, goal.com, Soccerlens, Football Fancast and Here is the City. I am a lifelong and long-suffering Tottenham fan. Follow me on Twitter at @90MinsOnline
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