Belfast Telegraph

£8m is the rich reward for Irish FA if Northern Ireland can make it to Euro 2016 promised land

By Steven Beacom

For Northern Ireland supporters, having the chance to cheer on their team at the Euro 2016 finals would be priceless. For the Irish Football Association it would lead to the biggest financial windfall in their history.

It is estimated that if Michael O'Neill's men reach the glamour stages in France the IFA will be in line for a stunning £8 MILLION jackpot.

The majority of that would come from Uefa prize money for qualification which could be added to by gate receipts and television revenue from glamour friendlies plus endless merchandising opportunities.

While Northern Ireland are not in France yet, they have made the best possible start to the campaign winning away in Hungary and Greece and against the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park.

No Northern Ireland team had won their opening three qualifiers until the current crop achieved the feat in Athens last month.

The performances of players such as Roy Carroll, Conor McLaughlin, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis, Chris Baird, Oliver Norwood and Kyle Lafferty have taken O'Neill's team to the top of Group F and allowed the Green and White Army to dream about a trip to Paris in 2016.

They face Romania on Friday knowing a point will keep them top of the pile, but such is the confidence in the squad they are looking for another victory, not just a draw.

If they continue to deliver, Northern Ireland will play in the finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup, when pickings weren't nearly as rich as they are now.

Back then the IFA were dealing with thousands. Now the figures are in millions.

There is massive prize money available from Uefa for qualifying for the finals, which can be achieved by finishing in the top two places in your group or by being successful in a play-off for third placed sides.

All 16 countries who made it to Euro 2012 claimed a whopping £6.3 million.

That was just the reward for getting there.

The Republic of Ireland failed to win a match in the finals three years ago and were still laughing all the way to the bank. Those successful on the big stage can expect to take home lots more.

In the last European Championships, staged in Poland and Ukraine, even for drawing a group match teams were handed almost £400,000 and twice that for winning.

Reaching the quarter-finals, as England did, gave countries another £1.6million with numbers rising the further the progression. Eventual victors Spain ended up with £18million.

There will be a larger number of nations in the Euro 2016 finals - 24 - but it is understood prize money will not be lowered because of that. If anything Uefa will increase the prize pot.

Apart from the finance to be gained from qualification, there are other areas in which the IFA can maximise revenue. If qualification is secured that will mean some glamour friendlies coming to Belfast in 2016 with Northern Ireland suddenly becoming a much more attractive proposition for bigger nations.

There will also be the increased capacity of 18,000 at Windsor Park to consider, generating more funds than was possible previously.

Many at the IFA would like to see England officially open the stadium, but even if the FA have other fish to fry and money to make elsewhere, there is confidence that glamour opposition will kick off the new surroundings in style.

The IFA hierarchy should ask Fifa Vice-President Jim Boyce to be involved in this process, because of his glittering array of global contacts.

Northern Ireland qualifying would guarantee fans flocking to see their home team, but the grander the opposition the more television revenue to be had, though there is a flip side because the grander the opposition the more money they may want to come here. Regardless, with three possible friendlies at Windsor ahead of an adventure in France, and potential lucrative invites from around Europe, there are major sums to be tallied.

The same goes for merchandising. Shirt sales alone would rocket ahead of the finals in France and if marketed properly the IFA could rake in a fortune with other items.

All in, £8million is an achievable target.

So, what would the IFA do if these millions arrived at their door? Well, for starters there is likely to be bonus payments for O'Neill and his players.

An IFA bonus structure for qualification has operated previously, but without any pay-outs. It would be hard to begrudge manager and team a reward if they take the country to the promised land.

Then there is the future and a massive opportunity to create a lasting legacy so that Northern Ireland would not be waiting another 30 years for a major tournament.

Investment would surely be made in academies, facilities, structures and young players with genuine talent. Irish League clubs and those further down our footballing pyramid would like to think they would be helped too, just as they were, albeit on a much smaller scale, when Billy Bingham's heroes qualified for the 1982 World Cup finals. Time will tell on that one.

What is beyond doubt, after Northern Ireland's incredible start, is that the IFA are sitting on a pot of gold.

Belfast Telegraph