|Members of the GAWA with Hungary supporters in Budapest.|
Before the Euro 2016 campaign started, hope among Northern Ireland fans that their side might qualify for the finals tournament was low. Now, with six rounds of matches in Group F complete, rather alarmingly, many of the Green and White Army fully expect to travel to France next summer to watch the Ulstermen, who are second place in the table (two countries from each group qualify automatically and the third has an opportunity to do so through a play-off).
Whether or not that happens, the team’s manager, Michael O’Neill, has done an incredible job to oversee five wins and a draw in this competition, after securing only one victory in his first eighteen international games. What’s made the difference?
You could argue that the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifying tournament was kind to Northern Ireland. Certainly, none of the teams in Group F looks equipped to go to France and progress far in the finals. However, Romania, Greece and Hungary were all expected to finish above O’Neill’s men, while Finland was considered to be at a similar level of ability and the Faroe Islands had tripped Northern Ireland up before.
Growing confidence among the players has contributed to their success.
In the first match, in Budapest, they played conservatively for 75 minutes, despite the home team struggling to dominate in front of a restive Hungarian crowd. When Hungary took the lead, it looked like another routine Northern Ireland defeat, but instead McGinn and Lafferty responded positively and combined twice, scoring one apiece to secure an unlikely 2-1 win.
There was an element of good fortune to that victory but it injected belief into a team which had little experience of winning away from home. After a successful clash with the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland played masterfully against Greece in Athens to make it an unprecedented three wins in a row.
That stylish 2-0 victory fed the fans’ expectations. It was the type of controlled performance no-one was accustomed to seeing Northern Ireland deliver and it pushed us top of the group. The media, supporters and players all started to talk about qualification, with a seriousness not heard since the 1980s.
Alongside a renewed sense of confidence, Michael O’Neill made tactical changes which improved his team’s fortunes. Toward the end of the unsuccessful qualifying tournament for the World Cup in Brazil, Northern Ireland set up in a 3-5-2 formation, which often looked more like 5-3-2, when opponents had the ball. From the first game in Group F, O’Neill deployed instead a fluid 4-3-3 line-up, which switched to 4-5-1 when the team had to defend. He maintained his previous emphasis on keeping possession, when possible.
Like a number of supporters, I had my doubts whether Northern Irish players could implement a modern, technical system, but the manager kept trying to play clever, attractive football and his ideas started to work. These flexible tactics allow Northern Ireland to flood the midfield with sufficient numbers to compete for the ball when they’re not in possession, yet also get players forward to support Kyle Lafferty in attack, when they win back the ball. The result has been eight goals in six matches.
The task of qualifying for Euro 2016 is far from complete. Northern Ireland travels to the Faroe Islands next; exactly the type of opponents the team has traditionally failed to score against. The Islanders have had a remarkable campaign so far too, beating Greece twice, and they’re confident they can get a result in front of a sell-out home crowd.
Northern Ireland hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986 and, with the fans’ expectations so high, nerves are almost bound to affect the players, before the group is over. However, it is already likely the side will at least secure a play-off place and every one of the remaining four games, against the Faroes, Hungary, Greece and Finland, are potentially winnable. The manager believes just five more points – which could be achieved through one win and two draws – will probably secure second place.