North's band of brothers are ready to rumble
Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30
Steven Davis was preparing to lead the squad back on to the Windsor Park pitch for a lap of honour after victory against Belarus in their final home warm-up game last week when, unbeknown to the Southampton midfielder, striker Kyle Lafferty was in the background orchestrating a plot to embarrass Northern Ireland's popular captain.
So when Davis started making his way out, the rest of the squad stood still, just about suppressing their laughter until their leader wondered why the only boots he could hear clinking on the concrete walkway were his own, glanced around and began smirking, slowly shaking his head at a prank that would not have been out of place on a primary school playground.
Unity is a word that gets bandied around too freely where team sports are concerned, with superficial talk of dressing-room bonds.
But the spirit manager Michael O'Neill has forged, and which now infuses every member of a hotchpotch squad, a togetherness that has seeped into the stands where sectarianism was once rife, is not for show.
It is deep and genuine and should ensure that opponents in France underestimate the second smallest nation at the Euros, who are unbeaten in 12 matches after their 0-0 draw with Slovakia on Saturday, at their peril.
Northern Ireland will kick off their campaign against Poland in Nice next Sunday.
When the Irish Football Association convened a press conference in February for international media intrigued by this story of nomads and nearly men, cast-offs and comeback kids, one Polish journalist asked O'Neill, almost in disbelief, how it was possible for a squad comprising a goalkeeper-turned-goalscorer, former postman, and Fleetwood Town's right-back to go so far.
In truth, he was not the first - and he is unlikely to be the last, particularly if Northern Ireland ruffle the feathers of Poland, Ukraine and Germany in Group C.
Egos have not exactly been parked because no one in the squad really has one. Check out the players' Twitter feeds and they are mostly a monument to national pride.
Few players better illustrate the 'team first, me last' attitude than Aaron Hughes, who won his 100th cap against Slovakia.
Having retired from international football in disillusionment in September 2011, a century of appearances was a milestone the former Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Fulham centre-half never expected to make but a few hours in O'Neill's company convinced him better days were ahead and prompted an about-turn he is relieved, in hindsight, to have made.
Commitment to the cause? In the past nine months Hughes, who spent last season at Melbourne City in Australia, has notched up more than 85,000 air miles answering O'Neill's repeated call to arms, despite playing only a total of 60 minutes in that time.
"It's best not to ask me straight after a 32-hour flight if it's worth it," Hughes joked. "But, no, coming out of international retirement is one of the best decisions I ever made. There is a special spirit among this group of players."
It has certainly been some turnaround since September 2013, when O'Neill likened the job to "self-harm" after a 3-2 defeat by Luxembourg left the manager yearning for the end of a miserable World Cup qualifying campaign when his team finished two points behind Azerbaijan.
In O'Neill's first 18 matches, Northern Ireland won just once and yet the seeds of future success were being sown.
It is a formula that revolved around reinvigorating the old guard (Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird, Roy Carroll and Davis), making those on the periphery of their clubs feel wanted and valued (take your pick from any half dozen), promoting young talent (Conor McLaughlin, Paddy McNair), nationalising others (Conor Washington, Will Grigg) and transforming Lafferty from likeable liability to the team's (still likeable) talisman and totem.
Assuming Lafferty has overcome the knock he suffered against Slovakia on Saturday, shortly before the Poland game the striker will go through a routine that has helped him to become Northern Ireland's leading scorer in qualifying and which O'Neill will hope enables his side to hit the ground running in France.
O'Neill will hand Lafferty a DVD showing five minutes of newly-edited footage of the player at his influential best.
Given that the striker managed just 13 minutes in the Premier League for Norwich last season, it is safe to assume there will not be many clips of him in action for his club but even that is something O'Neill taps into when assembling his motivational toolkit.
With the exception of Lafferty and McNair, the young Manchester United player, Northern Ireland's likely starting XI against Poland were all regular starters for their clubs last season.
Between them, they averaged more than 34 league games while the spine of O'Neill's defence - McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart, who limped off against Slovakia - were Premier League mainstays.
McLaughlin is the afore-mentioned Fleetwood right-back damned with faint praise but he is unlikely to be playing in League One for much longer.
The problems in France may come if injuries materialise and the manager is forced to place his faith in the fringe players, although they have risen to the occasion before.
Kilmarnock striker Josh Magennis, who was signed as a goalkeeper by Cardiff City in 2007 before his metamorphosis into a centre-forward, scored when Lafferty was suspended in the 3-1 win against Greece that sent Northern Ireland to their first leading tournament for 30 years.
Washington, who was a postman playing part-time for St Ives four years ago, scored on his home debut against Slovenia in March.
And then there is Wigan striker Will Grigg, now the subject of a top 10 UK single and a campaign in Belfast to get him to the top of the charts.
Grigg scored against Belarus, much to the delight of fans who have adopted the anthem - inspired by Gala's 1997 hit 'Freed From Desire' and championed by Wigan - as their own.
On and off the pitch, Northern Ireland are determined to make themselves heard in France. (© Daily Telegraph, London)