Analysis – Northern Ireland emerge from neighbours’ shadow

The 1986 World Cup was the last time the Belfast boys qualified for a major tournament, since when a different Ireland side in green have done so several times, after being revived by English World Cup winner Jack Charlton.


The Republic of Ireland are now managed by the former Celtic and Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, not to be confused – although he frequently is – with the man behind Northern Ireland’s current success, 45-year-old Michael O’Neill.

He was appointed three years ago and won only one of his first 18 games, which was one of the reasons Northern Ireland were down in pot five when the draw was made for Euro 2016.

For once the draw was a little kinder than usual, although even optimists among the Irish support were hardly expecting their team to fly out of the traps with three wins out of three and go into Friday’s tie away to Romania on top of Group F.

“It’s been a fantastic start,” Northern Ireland’s most capped player, Pat Jennings, told Reuters.

Jennings, who played 119 times between 1964 and 1986, making his debut in the same game as the country’s greatest player, George Best, is particularly impressed with O’Neill.

“He knows Irish football, which is what we need, and he’s done a brilliant job with what he’s got.”

The danger, Jennings now feels, is getting carried away. “Romania will be a tough one,” he said. “I just hope everyone’s not expecting too much.”

Two of the three wins so far have been away from home, by 2-1 in Hungary (where O’Neill’s side were a goal down with 10 minutes left) and 2-0 in Greece.

A straightforward 2-0 home victory over the Faroe Islands means that they are two points ahead of the Romanians and, significantly, five in front of anyone else.

The new 24-team format for the finals has been criticised as bloated, but with two teams qualifying automatically from each group and every third-placed side guaranteed at least a playoff place, it represents the best opportunity in many years for countries such as Northern Ireland.


O’Neill has done his homework, estimating that 18 points should mean qualification. Already halfway to that target, he has pointed out that after Bucharest on Friday, his team will have four of the remaining six games at their Windsor Park home, where they have traditionally been strong.

Should they qualify for the first time in 30 years, it will be a triumph for team spirit and the manager’s own organisational ability, given the material he has to work with.

The best represented league in the Northern Ireland squad is the third tier of English football, from which he had to draft in two more players this week – representing Rochdale and Oldham Athletic – after the sort of withdrawals international managers become reluctantly used to.

For those whose clubs are higher up the food chain, the problem is a lack of regular first-team football. Some of the most experienced players O’Neill relies on, like defender Aaron Hughes of Brighton and striker Kyle Lafferty of Norwich City, have recently dropped out of the Premier League but cannot even command a regular place at their Championship clubs.

Lafferty has not scored for his club all season, yet is Northern Ireland’s talisman, with a goal in every one of the group matches so far.

Manchester United’s Jonny Evans has been injured for some time and the captain and only Premier League regular this season, Southampton midfielder Steven Davis, withdrew from the squad on Wednesday.

Not that O’Neill will talk his side down when he addresses the media in Bucharest on Thursday. His message, as he told The Independent this week, is that “we’re asking lads to step up, and they have”.

Indeed, it is Romania’s experienced coach, Anghel Iordanescu, now in his third spell in charge, who is calling Northern Ireland favourites for the match on the back of their three successive wins.

Psychological games that may be, but it is a measure of the new respect for a country emerging from the shadow of their nearest neighbours.

(Editing by Stephen Wood)