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Barry Hunter sure that Northern Ireland can disarm Euro superpowers in the finals

By Stuart McKinley

Barry Hunter, in action for Northern Ireland against France, is impressed with manager Michael O’Neill’s preparations
Barry Hunter, in action for Northern Ireland against France, is impressed with manager Michael O’Neill’s preparations
Ticket to ride: Barry Hunter (second left) with the Liverpool team in their kit sponsored by manager Jurgen Klopp

Former Northern Ireland defender Barry Hunter is expecting Northern Ireland to make Europe sit up and take notice at Euro 2016 because of Michael O'Neill's meticulous planning.

Hunter was already confident that the men in green could have an impact on the finals, but a chance meeting with O'Neill last week has convinced him even more that the big boys across the continent could be in for a shock.

The pair, who played alongside each other at international level during the 1990s and still speak on a regular basis, met in the unusual setting of Gdansk last Wednesday when O'Neill was running the rule over Group C opponents Poland in a friendly against Holland, while Hunter was there in his role as Liverpool's chief scout.

More: Kyle Lafferty scare is first bump on our French Euro 2016 adventure

And he is in no doubt that both the manager and his players will go into Sunday's game in Nice fully prepared for whatever the Poles throw at them.

"Michael will know everything that there is to know. There will be no surprises for him in the opposition teams," said Hunter.

"I met him last week at the Poland v Holland game and from talking to him there's not much he didn't already know about the Poles. It will be the same with Ukraine and Germany.

"He will have the team well briefed, they will know their own jobs and they will know the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.

"He's had six months since the draw to put everything into place and the team will be well prepared, there's no doubt about that."

Northern Ireland go into the tournament with the longest unbeaten run of any of the participating nations, with 12 games played since their last defeat.

The Northern Ireland football squad with manager Michael ONeill before leaving for the Euro Finals.
The Northern Ireland football squad with manager Michael ONeill before leaving for the Euro Finals.
Michael McGovern. Age: 31 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 10 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Like a fine wine, Enniskillen man Michael is improving with age. Experience of Euro 2016 will make him even better.
Roy Carroll Age: 38 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 44 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: I’ve known Roy since he was a kid. Brilliant guy and a top goalkeeper. Now the Windsor penalty king, he is great for team morale.
Alan Mannus Age: 34 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 8 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Third choice he may be, but if called upon, as he showed versus Belarus on Friday night, Alan won’t let the side down.
Craig Cathcart Age: 27 Position: Defender Caps: 27 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Has established himself as a quality Premier League defender and international. Vital to Northern Ireland now.
Jonny Evans Age: 28 Position: Defender Caps: 48 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Has the ability to have a big tournament and show why Manchester United should never have sold him.
Gareth McAuley Age: 36 Position: Defender Caps: 60 Goals: 7 Beacom’s verdict: Big G has become a huge favourite with the fans and rightly so. Huge influence and dangerous at set-pieces.
Luke McCullough Age: 22 Position: Defender Caps: 5 Goals: 0 Verdict: May not feature in France, but has an important part to play in training and be ready if required. Can learn much from likes of McAuley.
Conor McLaughlin Age: 24 Position: Defender Caps: 17 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Conor has been magnificent since being a surprise choice in the first Euro qualifier. Will relish shining in France.
Lee Hodson Age: 24 Position: Defender Caps: 15 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Clearly impressed manager Michael O’Neill in training to make the trip. Steady performer. Could get some game time.
Aaron Hughes Age: 36 Position: Defender Caps: 99 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Aaron is a Northern Ireland legend. Even when the team struggled he was Mr Consistency. Delighted he is going to the finals.
Paddy McNair Age: 21 Position: Defender Caps: 8 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Looks like a seasoned international when he plays in the holding midfield role for his country. Could be a key player in France.
Chris Baird Age: 34 Position: Defender Caps: 77 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Another brilliant servant. His vast experience will be needed on and off the pitch. Reliable when the going gets tough.
Steven Davis Age: 31 Position: Midfielder Caps: 82 Goals: 8 Beacom’s verdict: In my view Steven has become one of Northern Ireland’s greatest ever footballers. What a player. And a superb captain too.
Oliver Norwood Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 33 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: How this man has grown under Michael O’Neill. Now an outstanding international and so crucial to how the team plays.
Corry Evans Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 33 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Works his socks off for the team no matter where he is asked to play. Could be a key substitute in group games.
Jamie Ward Age: 30 Position: Midfielder Caps: 21 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: With his energy, this livewire often sets the tone early on for Northern Ireland. Underestimate him at your peril.
Stuart Dallas Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 13 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Like a few in this squad has flourished under the manager. Seems inspired every time he puts on a Northern Ireland shirt.
Niall McGinn Age: 28 Position: Midfielder Caps: 42 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Showed against Belarus he can make a big impact off the bench. That will be his important role at the Euros.
Shane Ferguson Age: 24 Position: Midfielder Caps: 24 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Has a lovely left foot and an ability to whip in dangerous crosses. Like a few here will be useful off the bench.
Will Grigg Age: 24 Position: Forward Caps: 8 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Forget the song for a second, if given the chance this guy can be a hit at Euro 2016 because he is a clinical finisher.
Kyle Lafferty Age: 28 Position: Forward Caps: 50 Goals: 17 Beacom’s verdict: Northern Ireland’s main man in attack. Inspirational and influential, Kyle has what it takes to be a star in France.
Conor Washington Age: 24 Position: Forward Caps: 3 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Sure to get game time at the finals, he could be a surprise element for the team. Certainly won’t be overawed.
Michael O’Neill Age: 46 Position: Manager Verdict: Michael is the manager with the Midas touch. It will take something special for Northern Ireland to make the knockout stages, but with this man in charge anything is possible.

More: French legend Alain Giresse writes off 'limited' Northern Ireland in Euro 2016 finals

The only goal conceded in the five friendlies since qualification was secured was a late, late penalty in a 1-1 draw with Wales back in March.

It's a far cry from O'Neill's early days when it took him 18 months to record a victory and Hunter believes qualification is the reward for the foundations that were laid during that tough start.

"What Michael and the players have done is amazing," he said.

"He couldn't get a result at the start and he came in for a bit of criticism, but he worked hard, stuck to what he believed in and has got the rewards for that.

"I am very proud that Northern Ireland are there and very pleased at how they did it - by finishing top of the group.

"You can't give the team enough credit for doing that. They deserved to qualify and they will go into the games with great confidence and belief because of the form they have been in."

More: Euro 2016: Michael Owen predicts Northern Ireland will finish bottom of group

Hunter has already been on his own European adventure this month. He led a five-strong team from Liverpool in last weekend's Football to Amsterdam challenge for Prostate Cancer UK, after also completing the charity cycle last year.

"I don't know how I got roped into it for a second year - I think it's a case of once you're in you can't get out of it," said the Coleraine-born 47-year-old.

"Last year we were the first Premier League club to do it, this year we had five from the club taking part and Liverpool really got behind us.

"The manager sponsored our kit and he was really supportive. We were sending him pictures from the starting line and he kept in touch with us.

"It's a great cause. I had a friend from Coleraine die from prostate cancer back in April, so it's something that is close to me."

One of the perks of Hunter's job at Anfield means that he will also be in France.

"I am going over for work and I have been getting a bit of stick from the other members of the scouting department as to how I managed to get the three Northern Ireland games," he said.

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