Sunday 25 February 2018

Oliver Norwood happy to embrace Northern Ireland's underdog tag

Oliver Norwood, pictured right, has helped Northern Ireland enjoy a 12-game unbeaten run
Oliver Norwood, pictured right, has helped Northern Ireland enjoy a 12-game unbeaten run

Northern Ireland trained at their Euro 2016 training base for the first time on Monday and Oliver Norwood is quite happy for the most in-form team in the tournament to be viewed as an underdog in France.

Michael O'Neill's squad are based north of Lyon in Saint-Georges-de-Reneins, where the facility is bedecked in images depicting a qualifying campaign which culminated in reaching the country's first finals for 30 years.

The team arrived there on Monday and those players who featured in Slovakia on Saturday night, including Craig Cathcart and Kyle Lafferty - both men came off with knocks - were involved in rehabilitation work.

Chris Baird and midfield colleague Norwood were the first two players to face the media after the session and the latter was asked if he had a message for those viewing Northern Ireland as one of the tournament's minnows.

"Let them keep thinking we're the underdogs," he responded.

"We've proven we belong in the tournament - we won our group. If people want to see us like that then that's up to them.

"We're excited to be here, looking forward to the tournament and can't wait to get going on Sunday."

None of the other 24 teams boast an unbeaten streak as long as Northern Ireland's 12-game sequence, though Spain can equal it prior to the tournament should they avoid defeat to Georgia on Tuesday.

Scenes from their record-breaking run adorn the walls at the training base and Baird and Norwood conducted their press duties alongside some of the country's most iconic images, including the Titanic Belfast museum and Giant's Causeway.

"Everywhere we go, it's all you can see - all the players - and it's still sinking in that we're finally here," said 78-cap international Baird.

"We've done this as a team and it's nice to see it spread about everywhere, whether it's the game room, whether it's in the bedrooms, it's just everywhere. It's nice to see it all around us."

For Norwood, an England youth international who then declared himself available for Northern Ireland, the fact he is on the verge of a major international tournament with O'Neill's side was something he did not envisage.

"Probably not," Norwood replied.

"Chris has had harder times than me, played a lot more games. Losing to Luxembourg, Azerbaijan - they were real low points. We addressed that and look where we are today.

"It's a testament to the players and the staff the amount of work that's gone on behind the scenes why we are set here today and looking forward to our first appearance in 30 years."

Leeds winger Stuart Dallas was out with the group on Monday having rejoined the squad on Sunday after missing the goalless draw in Slovakia following his marriage back in Cookstown.

It was also confirmed that youngsters Joel Cooper and Paul Smyth, both of whom play their club football in Northern Ireland, would join up with O'Neill's squad later on Monday to supplement the senior group during training sessions.

Press Association

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