2016 is set to be an historic year for football on the Emerald Isle. For the first time, the island’s two national football teams will both compete at the same major tournament: UEFA EURO 2016.
Martin O’Neill guided Republic of Ireland to their sixth major competition since 1988, with the team having previously qualified for three FIFA World Cups™ and two European Championships. For Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland, EURO 2016 presents new ground for the ‘Green and White Army’, who have never before reached the European Championship, with their last international competition having come 30 years ago at Mexico 1986.
“It’s a bit of a golden age for both national teams. The Republic’s initial success followed off the back of Northern Ireland’s in ’82 and ’86,” Northern Ireland head coach Michael O’Neill told FIFA.com. “It’s good for football in both Northern Ireland and the Republic that both national teams have qualified for this summer’s EURO.
“Martin [O’Neill] came through a tough group and at one point it looked like it was going to be difficult for them to qualify. But they got three big results in their last four games and won a difficult play-off against Bosnia too. It was good to see them qualify also.”
Road to France
While both national sides are preparing for this summer’s competition, their journeys to EURO 2016 could not have been more different. With four games remaining in the qualifiers, Martin O’Neill’s ‘Boys in Green’ were trailing in fourth place after picking up one point from a possible six against Scotland. They produced a valiant fightback, however, in their remaining fixtures, which included a victory against world champions Germany, clinching third spot before defeating Bosnia and Herzegovina in the play-offs.
“Things were looking pretty bleak for us after we lost to Scotland away and then failed to beat them at home,” Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill told FIFA.com. “The media in Ireland pretty much wrote us off at that stage.
“That ‘all is lost’ attitude did surprise me because I’ve seen these kind of campaigns before and, of the four games Scotland and ourselves had left, three of them were extremely difficult. I always genuinely believed we could make up the ground.
"Beating Germany was a huge boost, of course, and even though we couldn’t quite manage to qualify automatically by winning in Poland, that Germany win gave us great confidence going into the play-off.”
The Republic’s gruelling journey was in stark contrast to minnows Northern Ireland, who became the first fifth seeds in EURO qualifying history to finish top of their group, pipping the likes of Romania, Hungary and former European champions Greece.
“When the qualifying draw was made, we recognised what a tough group we were in but we genuinely believed we could finish in the top three,” asserted NI manager Michael O’Neill. "Once we won our first three games, our objective changed to gaining automatic qualification. And ultimately going into the last game, the focus was there from the players to finish top of the group, which was nice to see.
“We enjoyed the euphoria of qualification after the Greece game, but we quickly came down to earth again to do enough in the final game against Finland to make sure we won the group.”
Facing Europe’s heavyweights
Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have been seeded as Pot 4 teams at UEFA EURO, with the latter the lowest-ranked team in the tournament. While much smaller in stature compared to some of the heavyweights they have been pitted against, both nations can take confidence from their results against higher-seeded sides in recent years.
“I did feel it was a tough, tough draw because Italy are essentially a pot one side, and Belgium are the top-ranked team in world football at the moment,” added Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill. “Sweden will be tough too and yet, when you think of that opening game against them in the Stade de France - where I know we’ll have an enormous support - you can’t feel anything other than excited about it all.”
For Northern Ireland, this tournament holds added significance as it will be their first major tournament in a generation – and one that manager Michael O’Neill hopes will be a memorable experience for players and supporters.
He said: “We have to aspire to try and get out of the group, which I’ve said to the players. We’re qualifying as group winners. Yes, we’re a very small country and we have a very limited number of players, but we are group winners.
“The nature of progressing to the Round of 16 at this year's tournament is a similar scenario with the EURO qualifiers in that you can finish third and potentially go through, which gives the smaller countries hope. It’s going to be very tough against Poland, Ukraine and Germany and the opening game (against the Poles) is going to be key; a positive result would set us up with everything to play for in the remaining two games.
“Qualifying (for UEFA EURO) meant everything. There’s a whole generation of Northern Ireland fans who have never experienced their team being at a major finals and it will be a magnificent experience for them.”