Rory McIlroy swings by to inspire Northern Ireland boys
Northern Ireland's players are ready to swing into action and shine at the Euro 2016 finals after a meeting with golfing superstar Rory McIlroy.
As the Belfast Telegraph revealed at the weekend, Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill arranged a get together at Carton House in Maynooth with the four-time Major champion yesterday with the aim to inspire his team ahead of travelling to France next week.
The players enjoyed seeing McIlroy in action, as he hit several shots, and there was also time for a chat with him about his career. In turn, the Holywood hero, who won the Irish Open on Sunday, was pleased to discuss the Euro finals with them.
McIlroy, who was at Windsor Park in October when O'Neill's side qualified for France, is the latest Northern Ireland superstar to have been invited into the team's camp by the manager, following on from boxing World champion Carl Frampton and Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody.
You wonder who O'Neill will line up for France... Liam Neeson perhaps!
While McIlroy made all the right decisions to finish in style at the K Club, O'Neill has a few big calls of his own this week in terms of the 23 players he is taking to France for the country's first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup finals.
There was a training camp last week in Manchester and the final few sessions at Carton House will make his mind up before Northern Ireland host Belarus in a friendly on Friday with the France-bound panel announced on Saturday.
Whatever the line-up, O'Neill insists he is already proud of what the players have achieved, classing them as humble heroes who have lifted a nation.
"They are a pretty humble group and are very easy to deal with," he said.
"After we played Wales in a friendly in March we were getting on the plane to fly back to Belfast and they had asked me why we were flying Saturday instead of Friday, and it was because the flights were cheaper on the Saturday.
"Paddy McNair, the young Man United player, was on the flight. There he was just getting on with a little New Balance rucksack. He didn't feel the need to have a £10,000 watch, didn't feel the need to have a £1,000 rucksack on his back. It's refreshing to see that.
"They are good people, good lads. Even when it was bad and we couldn't get results, I always felt there was more in them. Thankfully we managed to bring that out."
With the countdown to the Euro finals well and truly on, O'Neill, whose team will face World champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine in the group stages, said: "A massive achievement for us would be to get out of the group, but a good tournament for us would be people looking at the games and saying, 'Northern Ireland are a good team, narrowly beaten, a bit unfortunate there'.
"If we don't qualify from the group it won't be a disaster for us. It will be disappointing, but the most important thing is that we give a good account of ourselves and that the players develop further, individually and collectively, and that we take it forward into the next campaign and they are saying, 'we are stronger for the experience of being there'.
"We believe within the group that we can certainly perform. Once you get to the round of 16, if you can get that far, the fun really starts for us. We are the type of country no one wants to play. The expectation of Ukraine and Poland is that they should beat us.
"I was interviewed by Polish media back in Belfast and one guy was almost insulting, saying 'you've got players from Fleetwood'. I said we have but we also won our group to get to the Euros."
As for potential winners, O'Neill likes the look of hosts France and says "there is more left" in the Spanish team. On England, he added: "England can do well. I think they can have a good tournament."