Euro 2016 draw gives Northern Ireland a fighting chance
Published 24/02/2014 | 09:00
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill will order his players to make a fast start to the 2016 European Championship qualifiers, putting them in prime position to reach the finals in France.
In his first two years in charge, O'Neill experienced a hugely disappointing World Cup campaign, which included humiliating defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, but perhaps the tide is turning with Northern Ireland getting the luck of the draw in Nice yesterday.
The Green and White Army have not had many results to cheer in recent times, but the make up of their nation's Euro group is certainly something to feel positive about.
Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands will bring their own dangers but when you think Northern Ireland could have drawn Germany, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro and Kazakhstan, Group F is full of hope rather than doomed to failure.
In recent campaigns, Northern Ireland have faced the glamour of Portugal, Italy, Spain and England. There is none of that here, though it's worth noting before the Spanish won back to back European Championships, Greece were victors in the 2004 competition.
Ranked 12 in the Fifa ratings, they will be at this year's World Cup finals but Romania, Hungary, Finland and of course the Faroes will, like Northern Ireland, only have a watching brief.
It is fun when the big names of world football and the top nations come to Belfast, especially if they go away beaten, wondering what hit them, but in the great scheme of things a group like this gives Northern Ireland a better chance of qualifying for a major finals, which has not been achieved since the 1986 World Cup.
The great Pat Jennings, in Nice yesterday along with other legendary goalkeeping figures to make the draw, played his 119th and final international in that tournament.
Northern Ireland have gone close a few times since. Their latest attempt to reach the business end will start away to Hungary on September 7, nine years to the day after David Healy's goal beat England.
O'Neill's side will enter the competition knowing that with 24 teams qualifying for the 2016 finals, a top two finish in their group will see them saying Bonjour to the big time. Even finishing third in the six team section will ensure a two legged play-off.
While content with the group draw, O'Neill admitted he would have preferred a kinder fixture list which will see Northern Ireland travel to play three of their first four games with matches in Greece (October 14) and Romania (November 14) following on from a Windsor Park clash with the Faroe Islands on October 11.
"The start is tough for us. I would have liked two of the first four games at home to try and build some momentum but we'll just have to perform really well in those away matches to do that," said O'Neill.
"We must get points on the board early. The key to any campaign is getting momentum so there is belief amongst the players and the fans. That will be difficult with the fixtures we have, but if we deliver it would be a huge lift for us entering the latter part of the campaign."
The opening qualifier in 2015 at home to Finland on March 29 will be an historic occasion as it will be the first Windsor Park international on a Sunday.
Next will be another Belfast fixture against Romania on June 13. Then comes a September 4 trip to the Faroe Islands, who Northern Ireland could only draw 1-1 with on their last visit there.
O'Neill's men will host Hungary (September 7) and Greece (October 8) before rounding the campaign off in Finland on October 11, when hopefully the Northern Ireland supporters will be celebrating qualification.
On his future opponents the manager said: "The draw could have been a lot worse for us. We are certainly capable of competing and taking points from the likes of Hungary, Romania and Finland who like us will feel they can qualify.
"Our target is to finish as high in the group as possible and we'll be aiming for third at least to make the play-offs. The plan is to go into the final few fixtures in the mix."
O'Neill, who will have a few new faces in his squad for next month's friendly in Cyprus, revealed that he has spoken to his more experienced players Gareth McAuley (left), Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Roy Carroll and none are in the mood to retire from international football.
Good news, just like yesterday's draw.
NORTHERN IRELAND EURO 2016 QUALIFYING FIXTURES: Sunday September 7 2014: Hungary (Away); Saturday October 11 2014: Faroe Islands (Home); Tuesday October 14 2014: Greece (Away); Friday November 14 2014: Romania (Away); Sunday March 29 2015: Finland (Home); Saturday June 13 2015: Romania (Home); Friday September 5 2015: Faroe Islands (Away); Monday September 2015: Hungary (Home); Thursday October 8 2015: Greece (Home); Sunday October 11 2015: Finland (Away).
Euro 2016 qualifying draw
Group A: Holland, Czech Republic, Turkey, Latvia, Iceland, Kazakhstan
Group B: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorrra
Group C: Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, FYR Macedonia, Luxembourg
Group D: Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar
Group E: England, Switzerland Slovenia, Estonia, San Marino, Lithuania
Group F: Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands
Group G: Russia, Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova, Liechtenstein
Group H: Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
Group I: Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia, Albania, France*
* All Group I teams play France home and away but the results do not count towards qualification