North stars deserve to be followed in France
Published 11/10/2015 | 17:00
It's hard to overstate the achievement of Michael O'Neill in steering Northern Ireland into the European Championship finals.
The North began their campaign as the fifth-ranked team in Group F but they haven't just qualified, they are one of the first six teams to get through and need just a point in Finland this evening to top the group.
And all this with a team of journeymen who conventional wisdom would have sworn didn't have a chance at international level. The contribution of Josh Magennis, given his chance in the absence of top scorer Kyle Lafferty, on Thursday as Northern Ireland defeated Greece 3-1 at Windsor Park to clinch qualification, epitomised the team's mend and make do attitude. The Bangor man, who plies his trade with unglamorous Kilmarnock in the Scottish Premier Division and has scored just 20 goals in 169 senior games, having initially entered the pro game as a goalkeeper, tormented the Greeks throughout and bagged a goal to crown his efforts.
The whole performance was typical of the North's campaign, confident, positive and absolutely without fear.
I've been an admirer of O'Neill since his time at Shamrock Rovers, where he not alone brought the club two League of Ireland titles but masterminded their landmark progression to the group stages of the Europa League, making them the first club from our domestic league to get that far. He probably didn't get enough credit for those achievements at the time but the utter failure of the Hoops to build on those successes show how central O'Neill was to them.
The qualification is Northern Ireland's first since they made the 1986 World Cup finals.
And their current achievement made me think of how, particularly during their heroic effort at the 1982 finals, the whole island got behind the team of Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong, Billy Hamilton and one Martin O'Neill.
A less generous attitude seems to prevail these days but surely Northern Ireland are a team we should all get behind in France, unless they end up playing against the Republic. Because it's striking that some people see no contradiction between wishing for a soccer team which unites both parts of the island and begrudging Northern Ireland their small bit of success.
The first step towards a 32-county soccer team might be to stop despising the players and supporters who might one day form half of it. After all, they like sticking it to England as well.
Sunday Indo Sport