Michael O'Neill ready to shake off unknown tag against Germany
Published 21/06/2016 | 07:36
Michael O'Neill will ensure he is remembered across the continent if Northern Ireland can achieve a win against the world champions in Paris, but four years ago a group of German supporters were completely oblivious to who he was.
O'Neill could yet lead his country to the last 16 at Euro 2016 in their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup and they would guarantee their place in the knockout stages were they to defeat Joachim Low's side in the French capital.
That would be quite an achievement for a nation that became the first drawn from pot five to top a qualifying group having finished fifth among half a dozen teams during the qualification process for Euro 2012.
O'Neill took over in the aftermath of that and went to watch Europe's best later that summer, though venturing from Poland into Ukraine proved a problem due to the terms of his car hire, so the new Northern Ireland manager decided to try to hitch hike with some Germans.
"We had a brainwave when we saw this bus with Germany fans, lots of people were staying in Poland and going across to Ukraine," he explained.
"I think it's about 50-60 km to Lviv and we approached this wee bus. My mate tried to explain what we were doing and who I was, so that we could get on. They didn't know who I was, I was only in the job about six months, so when we got on they started to Google me and 'Northern Ireland manager' to see who I was.
"I didn't have accreditation or anything - I'd not gone through the IFA - we just wanted to go on our own steam. We had our own tickets, I wanted to go to the tournament and sample it, see what it's about.
"I wanted to see Russia and Portugal and I saw them both twice. We went to Warsaw too, and Wroclaw, I saw some great games.
"It was good, great. Now everywhere we go we've got police security. But that's nice, we belong in this tournament. I sampled that one, now we're in this one and we're part of it."
Recognition has already arrived in certain quarters of France, with Northern Ireland, and the 'Will Grigg's On Fire' chant they have brought along, helping them become an adopted second nation for some.
O'Neill believes that has come because fans can relate to his team and their Leicester-like status in the tournament.
"Everyone has their favourite teams but if they see a smaller team do well in the tournament - we saw that with Leicester - they can become everyone else's second team," O'Neill added.
"If we've created that kind of atmosphere, that's a positive. We came in, we don't have an arrogance, we don't have a blasé about us, we're a fairly humble team, a hard-working team but also have goals of our own that we want to achieve.
"Hopefully with the level of performance we can win some more friends and look forward to further participation."