Michael O'Neill unites Northern Ireland after reaching Euro 2016 and declares: 'Once you get to the round of 16, the fun really starts'

  • Northern Ireland began their Euro 2016 preparations in Dublin on Monday 
  • The location showed just how far football in the country has come
  • O'Neill has helped to calm football hostilities in the country in recent times
  • He's now targeting success with his team in France this summer  

The true scale of Michael O’Neill’s success in guiding Northern Ireland to their first European Championship finals became clear on Monday when his squad gathered to begin their preparations for France.

The location wasn’t Belfast where O’Neill’s side play their farewell home game against Belarus on Friday, or Lyon where they will be based for the majority of Euro 2016, but on the outskirts of Dublin.

When O’Neill was representing his country during the Troubles, the notion of Northern Ireland training in the Republic would have been unthinkable to their predominantly Protestant fanbase. ‘Not in a million years,’ said one insider on Monday. 

Michael O'Neill has enjoyed great success in leading Northern Ireland to Euro 2016 in France this summer

Michael O'Neill has enjoyed great success in leading Northern Ireland to Euro 2016 in France this summer

Northern Ireland have much to look forward to but say they're not going to France just to make up the numbers

Northern Ireland have much to look forward to but say they're not going to France just to make up the numbers

Indeed, when manager Bryan Hamilton took O’Neill and the rest of the squad to train at Donegal Celtic in Catholic West Belfast during the mid-90s, it was considered a groundbreaking – if risky – move.

O’Neill, 46, is the first Catholic from Northern Ireland to manage the national team.

His appointment and subsequent success in reaching a first major tournament in 30 years has made significant headway in bridging the political divide. 

In a recent poll, 71 per cent said that qualifying for France had helped to unite the nation.

O'Neill has helped unite the nation by taking his team to an historic major tournament this summer

O'Neill has helped unite the nation by taking his team to an historic major tournament this summer

‘Football was divisive in the past, the national team was divisive and the era I played in was divisive,’ said O’Neill.

‘I remember playing at Windsor Park in games off the back of atrocities when the Troubles were at their worst, and the atmosphere was far from great. 

NORTHERN IRELAND'S UPCOMING GAMES

Friendlies 

May 27: Belarus (Belfast, 7.45pm)

June 4: Slovakia (Trnava, 5pm) 

Euro 2016 

June 12: Poland (Nice, 5pm)

June 16: Ukraine (Lyon, 5pm) 

June 21: Germany (Paris, 5pm) 

'You had to be one or the other, but that has changed dramatically.

‘Now there is a really strong Northern Ireland identity. Everyone who goes to the game now wears a Northern Ireland shirt. In the past they would be wearing a Rangers or Linfield shirt.

‘That’s been the biggest positive in terms of what it means to Northern Ireland. It’s just massive how much it means.

‘A big thing was made when I took the job because I was a Catholic. I was conscious of that. At times I sit back and think: ‘God, this is quite a big thing and, potentially, the consequences.

‘But the reaction of the people in and out of the stadium has just been so positive. I’ll get the Syria job next!’

Northern Ireland celebrate a goal during their historic qualification progress under O'Neill this year

Northern Ireland celebrate a goal during their historic qualification progress under O'Neill this year

Northern Ireland finished top of their qualification group and O'Neill says they shouldn't be taken lightly

Northern Ireland finished top of their qualification group and O'Neill says they shouldn't be taken lightly

Although Northern Ireland have been drawn in the same group as Germany, Poland and Ukraine, there is a genuine belief among O’Neill and his squad that they can progress.

He added: ‘I’m not expecting to be in the tournament on July 10, but equally I hope I’m not going home on June 23 either,’ he added.

‘Only eight teams go home after the first phase, and the message to the players is let’s try not to be one of the eight teams.

‘Once you get to the round of 16, the fun really starts for us.

‘We are the type of country no one wants to play. The expectation of Ukraine and Poland is that they should beat us, a tiny country.

‘I was interviewed by Polish media back in Belfast and one guy was almost insulting, saying “you’ve got players from Fleetwood Town”. Yes, but we also won our group to get to the Euros.

‘Without saying we have to be “horrible” to play against, we are going to be really good without the ball and run further than any other team.

‘We are taking lads playing in League One to the European Championship. Let’s be honest, if they’re not going to run about for you then, they never will.’

O'Neill's team will meet the likes of Poland's Robert Lewandowski when they get to France this summer

O'Neill's team will meet the likes of Poland's Robert Lewandowski when they get to France this summer

O’Neill had to call in some favours during qualification. 

Northern Ireland were allowed to train at Manchester City and Arsenal. He scouted their base in Lyon this summer himself, but laughs at suggestions that everything is done on the cheap.

‘We stay at the nicest hotel in Belfast, the Culloden, not a youth hostel, he said. ‘We have toilet roll!

‘But after the Wales game (in March) the players asked why we were flying back to Belfast on Saturday instead of Friday. It was because the flights were cheaper on the Saturday.

‘Paddy McNair was on the flight, a young Manchester United player. 

'He didn’t feel the need to have a £10,000 watch, a £1000 rucksack on his back or have himself tattooed from there to there on one arm.

‘It’s refreshing to see that. There’s a good humility in our group.’

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

By posting your comment you agree to our house rules.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now