Belfast Telegraph

Sports Awards

Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards: Team of The Year - Northern Ireland

NORTHERN Ireland ended 2016 well on their way to reaching the World Cup finals in 2018.

Michael O'Neill's side started the year by looking forward to the country's first major tournament in 30 years.

The soundtrack to the summer became 'Will Grigg's on Fire' as the lives of people in Northern Ireland were taken over by the European Championships.

Whether fans were over in France or cheering the team on from back at home they couldn't help but become involved in Northern Ireland's run to the knockout stages of Euro 2016.

Ahead of the finals, Northern Ireland took their record unbeaten run to 12 games, with Aaron Hughes becoming the first outfield player to claim 100 caps.

The tournament itself started in disappointing fashion with a 1-0 loss to Poland in Nice, but the team bounced back brilliantly with a 2-0 victory over Ukraine becoming the Kings of Lyon in the process.

Gareth McAuley headed home the nation's first ever goal in the glamour stages of the European Championship and Niall McGinn added a second to spark a party that lasted until Northern Ireland's next game.

That was against World Champions Germany in Paris. O'Neill's team may have lost 1-0, but the three points gained in the victory over Ukraine and the level goal difference took them into the last 16.

Again Paris was the venue. Wales were the opposition and despite another fine performance, Northern Ireland were unlucky to lose 1-0.

There was desperate disappointment but immense pride for players like Michael McGovern, McAuley, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, captain Steven Davis, Corry Evans, Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas who did themselves proud.

If anyone thought Northern Ireland's time in the sun was over, they were wrong. In the World Cup qualifiers, they have played themselves into second place with convincing victories against San Marino and Azerbaijan, as well as a draw in the Czech Republic.

If they stay in the runners-up spot, behind Germany, they should land a play-off with the World Cup at stake.

The Team of the Year honours in the 2015 and 2016 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards are testament to what has been achieved by Northern Ireland's footballers. The Green and White Army would love a hat-trick in 2017.