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Michael O'Neill: Northern Ireland are out to surpass the greats of 58 and the 80s

By Steven Beacom

It was Northern Ireland's World Cup hero of 1958, Peter McParland, who said it first.

At the official unveiling of Michael O'Neill's 23-man squad for the 2016 European Championships on Saturday at the Titanic building in Belfast, which was superbly put together by the Irish FA, in front of hundreds of fans McParland stated his hope that the current crop of players could do even better than the legends of 58 years ago.

Back then McParland and co won through to the knockout stages of the World Cup in Sweden.

Billy Bingham's men also got through their first group in the 1982 World Cup, while the 1986 side came home after the opening phase of the competition.

The aim for O'Neill is to repeat the feats of the 1958 and 1982 Northern Ireland teams and perhaps improve on them.

Already O'Neill and his players have achieved what nobody else in this country has done by qualifying for the Euro finals.

"People are still talking about the 1958 team and the sides from 1982 and 1986," said O'Neill.

"When you look back at what those teams achieved it does hit home a little more what we have done. After the tournament there may be more of that.

"We are still in a mindset that it is ahead of us rather than behind us.

"As Peter said it would be great for the team to do better than what those teams have done. That is the target for me as a coach and the players."

While O'Neill is immensely proud of guiding the team to the finals in France, where they will meet Poland, Ukraine and World champions Germany in the group stages, one senses he almost feels as satisfied about efforts behind the scene to provide the Northern Ireland team with an identity.

He says: "When I took over, the team didn't really have a strong identity. We would go to the stadium at Windsor Park and there was nothing on the walls that made you feel like you were going to play for Northern Ireland.

"There were no images from the past or present and it was something we tried to address within the restrictions of the old stadium.

"You have seen the new stadium now and what they have done with it and there can be nothing better as a player to come in on the team coach and see positive images of yourself and your team-mates. The Association have done a great job and we have worked on videos and other things to give players a real sense of what it means to play for Northern Ireland.

"It would be wrong to say they had lost that but maybe they had lost the hope that they could actually inspire to achieve something. At times I said to the players that they weren't just here to pick up caps. We had to be about more than that."

O'Neill admitted that at the start of his reign in 2012 he did not envisage making it to the finals of a major tournament after just two qualifying campaigns.

In the build-up to France, today he and his team are bound for a training camp in Austria before a friendly in Slovakia on Saturday ahead of the June 12 Euro start against Poland in Nice.

The Northern Ireland boss is looking forward to privacy in Austria and the time to work on tactics, set-pieces and formations with his staff and players.

He added: "We know it won't be easy and we will have to play three games better than we have done before and stay injury free and when we change the team we will need players to play at a higher level internationally than they have done before but that is the challenge and I believe we can meet that challenge.

"Our fans will be huge when we get out to France. They have always given me and the players great support and it will be the same at the finals."

Belfast Telegraph