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Northern Ireland team is a truly unifying force now, says boss O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Published 24/05/2016

Rory McIlroy playing a shot in front of the Northern Ireland football team
Rory McIlroy playing a shot in front of the Northern Ireland football team

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has admitted that the while the national football team was divisive in the past, that is no longer the case.

O'Neill, the inspiration behind the team reaching the Euro 2016 finals, believes that everyone in the country is getting behind his side, which in years gone by was known for drawing more support from the Protestant community.

Another big change, according to O'Neill, is the atmosphere at Windsor Park compared with his time as an international player between 1988 and 1996, when the Troubles raged.

"Football was divisive in the past," he said. "The national team was divisive. The era I played in was divisive.

"When the Troubles were at their worst, I remember playing at Windsor Park in games off the back of atrocities, and the atmosphere was far from great.

"With the atmosphere now, there is a strong Northern Ireland identity. Whereas you had to be one or the other, that has changed. The Irish FA have done a lot on that.

"Everyone who goes to games now wears a Northern Ireland shirt. In the past, it would be wearing a Rangers or Linfield shirt."

In a survey of 1,000 people from communities across Northern Ireland before O'Neill's side qualified, 71% stated making it to France would unite the country.

Sometimes O'Neill, the first locally-born Catholic to become Northern Ireland boss, feels like more than just a manager.

"A big thing was made when I took the job because I was a Catholic and they hadn't had a Catholic manager for so long, certainly not Northern Ireland-born," he said.

"The media made a lot of that at home. I was conscious of that. At times I sit back and I'm concerned about that, I think: 'God, this is quite a big thing'.

"But the reaction of the people in and out of the stadium, has just been so positive. More than anything, that has been the most pleasing aspect."

Fresh from his Irish Open triumph on Sunday, four-time Major champion Rory McIlroy yesterday visited the Northern Ireland team's camp at Carton House in Maynooth to show the players his golf swing and chat to them about the upcoming Euro 2016 campaign.

McIlroy follows in the footsteps of world champion boxer Carl Frampton and Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody, who have previously been invited by O'Neill to meet his squad.

The Northern Ireland boss believes local superstars from different fields can help inspire his side and is determined to make sure no stone is left unturned in his quest to succeed at the Euro 2016 finals.

He is aware that the world's media will descend on his team in France, and he wants them to enjoy that experience rather that endure it.

"The biggest thing we have to deal with in the tournament is the increased media interest," said O'Neill.

"Suddenly we are going to have media demands every day and greater attention.

"The media attention we are going to get is going to be positive, which will help us. The players should be excited by that. This should be the biggest moment of their careers.

"That will excite them, it will motivate them, and it will almost invigorate them to take this opportunity."

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