Trivia: the first team from the island of Ireland to qualify for a major international was Northern Ireland, when they made it to the World Cup in Sweden in 1958. Losing to a Just Fontaine inspired France side 4 – 0 in the Quarter Finals.
The next tournament Northern Ireland qualified for was the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Under the management of Billy Bingham and with the legendary Pat Jennings in goal, Northern Ireland finished top of their group. Drawing with Yugoslavia and Honduras before their renowned 1-0 victory over the hosts at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia thanks to a goal from Gerry Armstrong.
They were then knocked out in the second group stage managing only a draw with Austria before losing 4–1 to a Michel Platini inspired France. Four years later they qualified for the World Cup in Mexico but were unable to recreate the magic, drawing with Algeria before losing to Spain and then Brazil.
Hampered by the retirements of key players Northern Ireland were unable to qualify for the 1990 and 1994 World Cups after which Bingham stepped down. Since then they have been on a steady downward slope until, that is, the beginning of this Euro 2016 qualification campaign.
Under the management of Michael O’ Neill Northern Ireland are enjoying their best ever start to a qualification campaign having won all three opening fixtures. A 2–1 victory away to Hungary, followed by a home win over the Faroe Islands and finally a 2–0 win over Greece in Piraeus. This has left Northern Ireland two points ahead of Friday’s opponent Romania and crucially five points over the other teams.
With the top two teams qualifying for the tournament in France and with four of their next six group games at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland stand their best chance of making a major international tournament in almost 30 years.
Should Northern Ireland qualify for Euro 2016 much of the acclaim will surely go to O’ Neill. The former Shamrock Rovers boss has assembled a squad where the majority of the squad plie their trade outside the top flight of English football.
It must be noted that some of Northern Ireland’s key players are struggling to make it into the starting 11 of their respective clubs. Kyle Lafferty has yet to register a single goal for Norwich City but has been influential for his country scoring in all three group games. This is something that worries O’ Neill. As he told The Independent:
I record it every week on my laptop and a constant trend is that our lads aren’t playing enough. Look at our team who won in Greece – [Gareth] McAuley’s not playing, [Chris] Baird’s not playing, Aaron [Hughes] has not been in the team at Brighton, Kyle [Lafferty] is in and out of the Norwich team, Shane Ferguson is not in the Newcastle team.
Of those who are playing regularly at club level, Conor McLaughlin’s at Fleetwood, Roy Carroll’s at Notts County at this stage of his career. Corry Evans [Blackburn], Oliver Norwood [Reading], Jamie Ward [Derby County], Davis.
That’s basically our team. Josh Magennis, who came on in Greece, he’s at Kilmarnock.We’re asking lads to step up and they have. Conor McLaughlin’s played in all three games. That’s a big step from Fleetwood to playing against Georgios Samaras for Greece. The lad Conor faced in Hungary – Balazs Dzsudzsak – he joined Dynamo Moscow for €20m.
Fridays match away to Romania will be a tough test with so many players being lost to injury. Manchester United centre back Jonny Evans has been a long term injury worry while captain and Southampton midfielder Steven Davis has had to pull out of the squad because of a hamstring injury sustained in Saturday’s win over Leicester City.
Derby forward Jamie Ward and Liverpool right back Ryan McLaughlin have also been ruled out with Brighton’s Aaron Hughes doubtful, however West Bromwich Albion’s Chris Brunt returned after missing out on the games against Greece and the Faroe Islands.
O’ Neill has been forced to call up a few inexperienced players for this game. Manchester United’s Paddy McNair good form earns his chance to win his first cap, while League 1 duo Matty Lund of Rochdale and Carl Winchester of Oldham have been brought in to bolster the squad.
Romania will be a very tough test for Northern Ireland as they are being coached by the experienced Anghel Iordanescu who was Romania’s coach when they made the Quarter Finals of the 1994 World Cup. Iordanescu has been talking up his opposition in the days leading up to Friday’s game claiming Northern Ireland are the clear favourites.
Friday’s match in Bucharest is the most important game in Northern Ireland’s recent football history and though a loss would not be disastrous at this stage, a positive result will surely give the squad, the manager and the fans of Northern Ireland to finally step out of the shadow of their neighbours to the south.