Belfast Telegraph

Why Michael O'Neill's men will trump the lot in magical 2015

By Steven Beacom

Right then... final column of 2014. You know the drill. Time to look forward to the New Year and consider what sporting delights await us.

I fancy Rory McIlroy to be putting on a nifty green jacket at the Masters in Augusta in April, Carl Frampton to make successful defences of his world title belt, beginning with Chris Avalos, and many of our stars from various sports to confirm their participation in the Rio Olympics.

Nothing, though, in 2015 is going to beat Northern Ireland's qualification for the 2016 European Championship finals in France.

And believe me, it is going to happen... around September or October.

Before a ball had even been kicked in the Group F campaign, I predicted on these pages that Michael O'Neill's men would make it to France even though many readers and colleagues thought I had finally lost the plot.

I could understand their scepticism given the previous World Cup qualifying campaign had been a complete nightmare in which the team had been humiliated 3-2 in Luxembourg and 2-0 in Azerbaijan, but I felt the draw favoured Northern Ireland, as did the fact that the third placed teams in groups were assured a play-off place, and that manager O'Neill had something about him.

Four games into the campaign, I see no reason at all to start doubting my gut instinct now.

Northern Ireland have nine points from 12, having played three games out of four away from home, and are in second place in the table.

There are six more fixtures to play, with four at Windsor Park where the fans will raise the roof when Finland, Romania, Hungary and Greece arrive in Belfast in 2015.

The last time Northern Ireland reached a big show was way back in 1986 for the World Cup in Mexico when Billy Bingham was the boss... come Euro 2016, that 30 years of hurt will have ended. Can you imagine the feelings qualification for a major football tournament will stir up?

Think back to how Northern Ireland celebrated when David Healy scored winning goals against England in 2005 and Spain in 2006 and multiply that by 50 or maybe even 100 as the Green and White Army savour being back in the big time and prepare themselves for the trip of a lifetime.

Thousands upon thousands of them will be saving like crazy next year in order make the journey in 2016. Rory, Carl and a few of our other sporting heroes might just join them for the craic.

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