LONDON (Reuters) - It has been so long since Northern Ireland appeared at the finals of a major tournament that fewer than a handful of Michael O’Neill’s squad for the European Championship had been born when the country last graced the game’s greatest stages.
When Billy Bingham led Northern Ireland to the World Cup in 1986, only Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley were of primary school age as against-the-odds heroics from Pat Jennings, Norman Whiteside and Gerry Armstrong entered into local folklore.
While the cherished memories of days gone by remain strong, manager Michael O’Neill and his team have been busy making history of their own over the last two years.
Qualification for the Euros, achieved as winners of their qualifying group, is not only the country’s first appearance at a major event in 30 years, it is also the first time Northern Ireland have ever booked a berth at the continental championship.
Along the way, O’Neill has steered the team on a run of 10 consecutive games without defeat, a record achieved with a 1-0 win over Slovenia at the end of March, which surpasses those achieved by teams under Bingham’s command.
Built on a strong team ethic that O’Neill has instilled within a squad drawn from across the various divisions of English and Scottish football but which boasts the Premier League core of McAuley, Jonny Evans and Steven Davis, the former Newcastle United midfielder takes his team to France 2016 in buoyant mood.
”Mentally the focus is there all the time, their application is there,” said O’Neill, who signed a new four-year contract after the win over Slovenia.
“I see it now at a greater level. That comes with belief and success. It’s not all coming from me. There’s a greater collective effort, as opposed to it being the manager all the time. I think that’s a healthier thing going into the finals in France.
“I‘m also delighted with the competition for places which has increased. Maybe in the past we’ve been too reliant on too few key players. As our key players grow, equally we’ll be stronger for that.”
Since qualification was achieved with an emotional 3-1 win over Greece at Windsor Park in November, O’Neill has been working to add depth and tactical flexibility to his squad.
England-born striker Conor Washington scored the winner against Slovenia in only his second appearance and the Queens Park Rangers man is the kind of player O’Neill is keen to use to bolster his line-up as he tries to lessen the load on Kyle Lafferty, Northern Ireland’s main scorer with seven goals in qualifying.
Northern Ireland have been drawn in Group C, where they will face world champions Germany as well as Poland and Ukraine, and O’Neill was given a boost after seeing England defeat Joachim Loew’s side 3-2 in a friendly in Berlin in March.
“We are realistic that when we play Germany, it will be a different game plan to the one England deployed,” said O’Neill.
“Our main focus at this moment is primarily on Poland and Ukraine. We are getting to see as much as possible of our Euro rivals. Teams have changed over the qualifying campaign, including ourselves.
“I am not going to say too much about Germany, as they have plenty of decent options. We are under no illusions. It will be as difficult a game as we could get.”
Editing by Neil Robinson