Northern Ireland continuing to break new ground
They may be ranked 500/1 outsiders by some bookmakers to win UEFA EURO 2016, but minnows Northern Ireland go into tomorrow’s tournament with the longest unbeaten streak of any team in France. The Green and White Army have not lost in their last 12, and it’s this superb form that has seen them climb to a record-high 25th spot in this month’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
While not blessed with world-renowned superstars, Northern Ireland more than compensate for their lack of household names with an incredible sense of togetherness in their squad. Under the guidance of manager Michael O’Neill, this has helped the team rise from their lowest standing of 129 in the FIFA Ranking to the current all-time high in less than four years.
"A lot of new players that have come into the squad have an enthusiasm for it and I think that’s been a bit refreshing," O’Neill told FIFA.com. "I think the players who have been in for quite a long time have benefited from that as well.
"We have a good mix. We have players playing in the Premier League to (third tier) League One in England, so there’s quite a disparity in playing level and salaries at their clubs – but you wouldn’t think that with the way they interact with each other.
"They’re a very good group and the top players have a real humility about them. I think it’s a really easy group for a player to come into and fit in, which again is testament to the players and how they react to each other."
O’Neill has been largely credited with helping instill that strong sense of unity among the Northern Ireland squad, and the 46-year-old also has a knack for bringing the best out of his players with his man-management style. Under the guidance of O’Neill, the likes of Conor McLaughlin and Shane Ferguson, despite plying their trade in England’s third tier, have not looked out of place competing against big names on the international stage.
"I think man-management is a big part of international football," said O’Neill. "You don't always have the best players and you don't always have the option to change them - particularly when you have a small group to pick from.
"The important thing is to man-manage the players in such a way that you can get the most out of them and that's what we've been able to do. The players have responded to that and deserve enormous credit with what they've achieved. There's a healthy relationship between the players, coaching staff and medical staff – there's just a really good atmosphere in the squad. Everyone has contributed to that."
Continental dreams The bottom seeds of Group C at EURO 2016, Northern Ireland find themselves up against it, having been paired with heavyweights Germany, Poland and Ukraine – but the ‘underdog’ tag is one that has suited them well in recent years.
Northern Ireland defied the odds by becoming the first fifth seeds in EURO qualifying history to finish top of their group, edging the likes of Romania, Hungary and former European champions Greece. Despite being minnows, they go into the tournament with a justified spring in their step.
"We’re used to having that tag of being the underdog and going in against the opposition that we have, we will have that again," said O’Neill. "But that helps the players mentally in terms of managing the expectation.
"On a personal level, I want to make sure the experience is a positive one for myself and the players. To do that, we have to make sure that we are competitive. Our aspiration has to be to try and find a way out of the group.
"We approach the tournament confident that we can perform on the big stage and hopefully get results against much bigger nations."