Not as nomadic as their Irish counterparts, the Green and White Army enter as shock contenders after surging through the qualifiers. Michael O’Neill’s side were expected to fall at the first hurdle and struggle to overcome European provocateurs Hungary and Romania. The manager himself, off the back of two defeats in his first two games looked to disrupt the supporting contingent. But against all odds, with no real form going into it, they grounded 2004 winners Greece whose capitulation home and away, ultimately reflected the pundits’ expectations of Northern Ireland. This followed by tenacious travels to Budapest and Helsinki, where stellar points were secured as ‘Norn Iron’ reached their first ever European Championship finals. The 1986 World Cup their last competitive showing, as they enter the group stage on a 10-match unbeaten run.
They head up Group C which consists of World Cup holders Germany, Ukraine and Poland. A tough draw no doubt, but an encouraging qualifying campaign will still bear the weight of their willingness to win. Whilst the game against Germany looks all but out of their reach, they’ll fancy their chances taking on a plucky Poland and their prized-poacher Robert Lewandowski. Keep him quiet and they won’t have much to worry about. Ukraine, unpredictably defiant at the best of times, turn up with an ageing squad lacking any real definitive quality. Additionally, civil unrest back home and inner-camp disruptions have threatened to hamper any hopes the Eastern-Europeans may have.
Heralded hero Kyle Lafferty may have been ‘living it up’ in Italy only a year ago, but a resilient return of 7 goals in qualifying has aided to the provisional success. One goal in particular, a last minute equaliser in front a bellowing Belfast crowd versus Hungary, epitomised the true spirit and soulfulness amongst the camp.