When Northern Ireland started their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign in Hungary on 7th September 2014, they’d won one international game of any kind in three years. No one expected anything from Michael O’Neill’s side, even in a seemingly gentle group lacking a true European giant.
What transpired in Group F was nothing short of miraculous. Fuelled by the goals of the enigmatic Kyle Lafferty, Northern Ireland won four of their first five games; their only slip-up coming in Romania. When the Green and White Army secured a goalless draw at home in the return fixture, they could almost smell qualification and, in a memorable night at Windsor Park in October, they secured a place in France by handing former European champions Greece a pasting.
Euro 2016 will be Northern Ireland’s first major tournament in 30 years, but what can fans back home expect from their team? Could we be in for a repeat of 1982, when Gerry Armstrong and co shocked the world by beating World Cup hosts Spain?
Who’s in the squad?
Despite not featuring in Norwich City’s plans last season, striker Kyle Lafferty is the key man for Northern Ireland, and the best player the country has had since all-time leading goalscorer David Healy retired in 2013. Lafferty hit seven of his side’s 16 goals in qualifying, including winners against Hungary and Finland. There are questions about his fitness in the lead-up to the finals, but if Northern Ireland are to prosper, Lafferty has to be on top form. If he does hit the right notes, Lafferty, valued at £6.5m in Fantasy iTeam could be a cheap source of points for your fantasy team.
Despite their inexperience in international tournaments, Northern Ireland’s side boasts a generous number of players with Premier League experience. Former Manchester United defender Jonny Evans (£5.6m) and Southampton midfielder and team captain Steven Davis (£5.6m) are probably the most well-known names, while West Brom’s Gareth McAuley (£5.5m), Derby’s Chris Baird (£5.4m) and the veteran Aaron Hughes (£5.3m), who recently became the first outfield player to win 100 caps for Northern Ireland, contribute to a firm backbone which performed well throughout qualifying.
O’Neill has a relatively small pool of players to choose from, but has gambled on a few lower-league names he hopes will perform this summer. Will Grigg (£6.3m), League 1’s top scorer, is in after scoring his first international goal in the friendly against Belarus, while Fleetwood full-back Conor McLaughlin (£5.4m) will benefit from the injury-enforced absence of Chris Brunt.
Who do they face?
World champions Germany, qualification top scorers Poland and Ukraine are a level above any of the opposition Northern Ireland have faced in the past two years, and escaping from Group C will be a tough task. Mercifully, the Green and White Army face Germany in their final group game (on 21st June in Paris), when Joachim Low’s men could already have secured qualification, but it’s likely that the Ulstermen will have to beat either Poland or Ukraine to stand a chance of progressing.
What’s the best bet?
Northern Ireland have made a splash in two of their previous three appearances at major tournaments, beating Czechoslovakia and advancing to the quarter-finals at the 1958 World Cup and defeating hosts Spain in 1982. They’re 9/2 to get the better of Poland in their opening game this time round.
Did you know?
Northern Ireland are unbeaten since losing to Scotland in a friendly in March 2015. Their current run of over a year without losing a game is a national team record.
Northern Ireland’s best hope is probably to seek victory over Poland or Ukraine and hope they can sneak through as one of the tournament’s best-placed third teams. Given the shock the Green and White Army caused in qualifying though, anything is possible.
Will a green-shirted player make it into your fantasy football team for the Euros? Download the app http://bit.ly/Play-FiT and pick up a bargain – but be quick: there’s only two days to go until the tournament begins!
This post was written by Fantasy iTeam