Belfast Telegraph

Barry Hunter sure that Northern Ireland can disarm Euro superpowers in the finals

By Stuart McKinley

Former Northern Ireland defender Barry Hunter is expecting Northern Ireland to make Europe sit up and take notice at Euro 2016 because of Michael O'Neill's meticulous planning.

Hunter was already confident that the men in green could have an impact on the finals, but a chance meeting with O'Neill last week has convinced him even more that the big boys across the continent could be in for a shock.

The pair, who played alongside each other at international level during the 1990s and still speak on a regular basis, met in the unusual setting of Gdansk last Wednesday when O'Neill was running the rule over Group C opponents Poland in a friendly against Holland, while Hunter was there in his role as Liverpool's chief scout.

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And he is in no doubt that both the manager and his players will go into Sunday's game in Nice fully prepared for whatever the Poles throw at them.

"Michael will know everything that there is to know. There will be no surprises for him in the opposition teams," said Hunter.

"I met him last week at the Poland v Holland game and from talking to him there's not much he didn't already know about the Poles. It will be the same with Ukraine and Germany.

"He will have the team well briefed, they will know their own jobs and they will know the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.

"He's had six months since the draw to put everything into place and the team will be well prepared, there's no doubt about that."

Northern Ireland go into the tournament with the longest unbeaten run of any of the participating nations, with 12 games played since their last defeat.

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The only goal conceded in the five friendlies since qualification was secured was a late, late penalty in a 1-1 draw with Wales back in March.

It's a far cry from O'Neill's early days when it took him 18 months to record a victory and Hunter believes qualification is the reward for the foundations that were laid during that tough start.

"What Michael and the players have done is amazing," he said.

"He couldn't get a result at the start and he came in for a bit of criticism, but he worked hard, stuck to what he believed in and has got the rewards for that.

"I am very proud that Northern Ireland are there and very pleased at how they did it - by finishing top of the group.

"You can't give the team enough credit for doing that. They deserved to qualify and they will go into the games with great confidence and belief because of the form they have been in."

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Hunter has already been on his own European adventure this month. He led a five-strong team from Liverpool in last weekend's Football to Amsterdam challenge for Prostate Cancer UK, after also completing the charity cycle last year.

"I don't know how I got roped into it for a second year - I think it's a case of once you're in you can't get out of it," said the Coleraine-born 47-year-old.

"Last year we were the first Premier League club to do it, this year we had five from the club taking part and Liverpool really got behind us.

"The manager sponsored our kit and he was really supportive. We were sending him pictures from the starting line and he kept in touch with us.

"It's a great cause. I had a friend from Coleraine die from prostate cancer back in April, so it's something that is close to me."

One of the perks of Hunter's job at Anfield means that he will also be in France.

"I am going over for work and I have been getting a bit of stick from the other members of the scouting department as to how I managed to get the three Northern Ireland games," he said.

Belfast Telegraph