‘We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland’ is the catchy, tongue in cheek chant that is regularly sung at matches by fans of the Green and White Army, but their recent successes have given their colourful and passionate supporters plenty of reasons to be cheerful in recent years.
For many years, supporters of the Northern Irish team saw very little to be proud of. True, they had their isolated successes in the forms of shock wins against rivals England in 2005 and a fantastic 3-2 win over eventual European Champions Spain in the European Championship Qualifying for Euro 2008, both games courtesy of Northern Irish icon David Healy. However, they’d failed to reach a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup and were considered cannon fodder for some of the bigger sides in Europe.
Despite this, they’ve got a reputation for having some of the most passionate fans in Europe. This was recognised in 2006, when the GAWA were awarded the Brussels International Supporters Award for their charity work, general good humour and, most of all, their attempts to stamp out sectarianism, which has been a big problem in Northern Ireland, due to the political climate.
However, what has really caught the general public’s eye is Northern Ireland’s team’s unbelievable transformation into a very apt side. Since new manager Michael O’Neill took over, they’ve both reached the finals of the Euro 2016 and gone onto to reach the play-offs of the 2018 World Cup; an outstanding achievement for a country that hadn’t reached the finals of a major tournament in 30 years and has a problem of a sizeable chunk of the country, both players and supporters, opting for the Republic of Ireland, due to political and religious beliefs.
Gary McAllister, chairman and press officer of the AONISC, believes that a big part of the side’s current success is down to the new manager: Quite simply the input and influence from our Manager, Michael O'Neill. “He's a very impressive speaker, very switched on and seems to have an excellent rapport with the players. We could also see that the standard of our play had improved greatly and there was a recognition of the work Michael was doing away from the Senior International squad too. Our momentum has continued to build over the last three years.”
This has clearly shown, as the Northern Ireland team showed, despite a disappointing outcome, great promise during the 2014 World Cup Qualifying, with promising results against Russia and Euro 2016 winners Portugal. This would go onto two very successful back to back qualification campaigns.
McAllister is not alone in this view. Jordan Moran, who runs the Norn Iron Fans Twitter account, backs the view that O’Neill has been instrumental in the side’s recent successes. However, he also makes the point that a big part of it is squad harmony and playing people together who work well together. “You can see this organisation as NI hardly leak any goals if you watch them over the Euro qualifiers and WC qualifiers. The fact that 3/4 of NI's back 4 (Brunt, McAuley and Johnny Evans) play for West Brom together week in week out is very beneficial to this.” This has been a huge part of O’Neill’s success, especially as he has clearly identified the strength of West Brom under Tony Pulis and how hard to beat they are.
There is also the element of the team working for each other, rather than being over reliant on one player. Jacob Graham, of Everywhere we go fanzine, believes that this has been very positive for the side and has made Northern Ireland a very strong side as a result. “The strange thing is that there has been no one player who has been behind the recent brilliant results, like Wales were propelled to the Euro's by Bale, we're generally a strong team.” This has shown particularly in these World Cup qualifiers just gone, as Bale’s absence has been a real hindrance to the Wales side that have missed out on qualification. It is a similar technique to one used by France manager Didier Deschamps, who once stated he’d pick the best team, rather than the best players. Since then France have gone from embarrassing themselves in disarray to a respectable World Cup in 2014 and were unlucky not to win Euro 2016.
However, one problem that the Northern Ireland team have that not many other countries do is the rule that exists between the Irish Football Association and the Football Assiociation of Ireland, who represent the Republic. As people in Northern Ireland are given the right to both British and Irish citizenship, players from the North are entitled to be selected to play for the Republic. Indeed, it was Derry-born James McClean who recently secured Ireland’s play off place with a winning goal in Cardiff. Whilst in recent years that hasn’t been so much of an issue since Northern Ireland’s rapid ascension, this used to be a big problem for the IFA.
Jacob Graham believes that this is fine, provided the player switches allegiances early on and doesn’t do it having played for Northern Ireland at youth level, as McClean did. “Personally, though, if a player wants to represent the Republic let them go, as a player who doesn't want to play for your team isn't going to put maximum effort in and is therefore letting the team down. The frustrating thing for fans and the FA is that these players take all the coaching and resources of Northern Ireland in youth age groups but then switch allegiance before playing for the first team. If you want to play for the Republic, fine, but switch early on.”
Nonetheless, despite this obvious drawback for the national side, Michael O’Neill’s management is taking the Northern Irish team places they wouldn’t have dreamed of a few years ago and has developed them from minnows to a side who can get results and are hard to beat, much like the reputation that their neighbours to the south have garnered over the years. There are still the play-offs to go, but, following another positive qualifying campaign, the Northern Ireland team have much to be optimistic about.
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