Belfast Telegraph

Michael O’Neill, Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley and Steve Davis all merit top marks after table topping Euro campaign

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland have produced a stunning and successful Euro 2016 campaign, qualifying for the tournament for the first time in the nation's history. Here's my assessment of the contributions of the manager Michael O'Neill and his players...

ROY CARROLL (Notts County): The oldest man in the squad at 38 played a major role in the first half of the campaign. He made key stops at vital times in the opening five games and brilliantly saved a penalty in the 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park. Off the pitch his selfless attitude in the dressing room, even when not playing, was a big positive.

Games: 5. Minutes 450. Campaign Rating: 8 out of 10.

MICHAEL McGOVERN (Hamilton): When Roy Carroll was injured for the top of the table clash with Romania, his fellow Fermanagh man came into the side and played a blinder, keeping a clean sheet in the 0-0 draw at Windsor. The 31-year-old kept his place after that and although he made a mistake in the 1-1 draw with Hungary, he bounced back superbly with a fine display in the 3-1 victory over Greece.

Games: 5. Minutes 450. Campaign Rating: 8 out of 10.

CONOR McLAUGHLIN (Fleetwood): Was a surprise choice at right-back for Northern Ireland's opening game against Hungary, but repaid the manager's faith in him with a highly accomplished display. That performance level continued throughout. What a find the 24-year-old has been. Has been solid defensively and superb going forward developing a fine partnership with Jamie Ward.

Games: 9. Minutes 739. Campaign rating: 9 out of 10.

GARETH McAULEY (WBA): Only one of two players to feature in all 10 Euro qualifiers. Known as 'Big G' the 34-year-old has enjoyed a BIG campaign. The central defender has been a colossus at the back with whoever he has been paired with at centre back and he has been outstanding in the opposition area, scoring three times from set pieces.

Games: 10. Goals 3. Minutes 848. Campaign rating: 10 out of 10.

AARON HUGHES (Melbourne City): The 35-year-old played the first four group games alongside Gareth McAuley in central defence as he moved closer to 100 caps. In those opening fixtures his experience and knowhow gave Northern Ireland a strong platform to build on. In particular he showed his quality in the vital 2-0 win in Greece.

Games: 4. Minutes 360. Campaign rating: 7.5 out of 10.

JONNY EVANS (WBA): Missing for the first four games, the 27-year-old entered the Euro 2016 qualifying fray against Finland at Windsor Park replacing Aaron Hughes. Up until being injured for the last two matches, he forged a strong partnership with Gareth McAuley at the back and will be an important player in next year's finals.

Games: 4. Minutes 349. Campaign rating: 7.5 out of 10.

CRAIG CATHCART (Watford): Never lets Northern Ireland down when called upon. That was illustrated in the final two games of the campaign when he came in for Jonny Evans at centre back and played a blinder against Greece at Windsor when qualification was secured and scored in the 1-1 draw against Finland in Helsinki.

Games: 4. Goals 1. Minutes 209. Campaign rating: 7.5 out of 10.

CHRIS BRUNT (WBA): Played eight games and every single one was at left-back. May not be his favoured position, but the 30-year-old performed a solid and professional role for the team. He also got forward well on occasions and his set piece deliveries often caused havoc in opposition areas leading to two assists for the WBA star.

Games: 8. Minutes 713. Campaign rating: 8 out of 10.

SHANE FERGUSON (Newcastle - on loan at Millwall): Started the victories over the Faroe Islands and Greece. Gave away a penalty in the former and like the rest of the team excelled and enjoyed himself in the latter. The 24-year-old has a lovely left foot and was delighted to come on as a substitute in the final game in Finland.

Games: 5. Minutes 200. Campaign rating: 7 out of 10.

CHRIS BAIRD (Derby): Has made the holding midfield role his own under Michael O'Neill and has become one of the most influential figures in the side giving others license to roam forward. Was sent off against Hungary at Windsor Park, but otherwise the 32-year-old was superb, especially in vital away victories.

Games: 9. Minutes 801. Campaign rating: 9 out of 10.

PADDY McNAIR (Manchester United): Started the last two games in the campaign, unfortunately getting injured in Finland, but it was clear in the time he played that the 20-year-old is going to be a class act for Northern Ireland moving forward.

Games: 3. Minutes 148. Campaign rating: 7 out of 10.

OLIVER NORWOOD (Reading): The 24-year-old has come of age as an international in this campaign. He has been brilliant in midfield with his astute passing and reading of the game and provided a real threat from set pieces. The Reading ace played all 10 games in the group and more minutes than anyone else in the squad... something to be extremely proud of.

Games: 10. Minutes 874. Campaign rating: 9.5 out of 10.

STEVEN DAVIS (Southampton): It tells you all you need to know that the only game that the Southampton midfielder didn't play in due to injury resulted in the only defeat in the qualifiers... in Romania. The 30-year-old is Northern Ireland's best footballer with a marvellous all round game. His two goals and emotional celebrations in the victory over Greece to seal qualification will live long in the memory.

Games: 9. Goals 2. Minutes 765. Campaign rating: 10 out of 10.

JAMIE WARD (Nottingham Forest): A bundle of energy. The 29-year-old starts quick in matches and often sets the tone and pace for Northern Ireland with his all action style. Scored the crucial opening goal in the win in Greece and formed a fantastic combination with Conor McLaughlin down the right. Key performer.

Games:6. Goals 1. Minutes 465. Campaign rating: 8 out of 10.

CORRY EVANS (Blackburn): Was asked to do different midfield jobs by the manager, both home and away, but never shirked his defensive or attacking responsibilities. The 25-year-old is a good option for Michael O'Neill to have and clearly has an eye for a pass which was evident with his brilliant ball to Stuart Dallas who then crossed for Steven Davis to score the opener against Greece.

Games: 7. Minutes 460. Campaign rating: 7.5 out of 10.

STUART DALLAS (Leeds): What a difference the former Crusaders ace has made to the team. The 24-year-old entered the campaign midway through and immediately looked as if he was born to play international football. Loves running and taking on defenders and the fans love watching him do it. Now the ex-Amateur League star is going from Coagh to the Champs Elysees.

Games: 6. Minutes 470. Campaign rating: 8 out of 10.

NIALL McGINN (Aberdeen): Niall McGinn started Northern Ireland on the road to glory when he came off the bench to score and provide a goal for Kyle Lafferty in the first match of the campaign - a comeback 2-1 victory in Hungary. That contribution was massive as were three other assists.

Games: 8. Goals 1. Minutes 422. Campaign rating: 8 out of 10.

KYLE LAFFERTY (Norwich): The star man of Northern Ireland's incredible success story. Came back from a disappointing and frustrating 2014 World Cup qualifying series to take the Euro campaign by storm. The 28-year-old from Kesh scored seven goals, including a crucial injury time leveller against Hungary, and on many occasions was unstoppable. He was magnifique. Without him Northern Ireland would not be going to France.

Games: 9. Goals 7. Minutes 752. Campaign rating: 10 out of 10.

JOSH MAGENNIS (Kilmarnock): More often than not in the campaign the big 25-year-old from Bangor came off the bench to replace Kyle Lafferty late on. When he was given his chance from the start, boy did he take it, netting his first international goal on that dream night against Greece in Belfast. Time to stop calling him the ex-goalkeeper. He's one of our goalscoring strikers now.

Games: 7. Goals 1. Minutes 159. Campaign rating: 7.5 out of 10.

MICHAEL O'NEILL (Manager): The 46-year-old deserves so much praise. His attention to detail is becoming legendary within the squad, his tactics have been spot on and his man management skills are top notch. Michael O'Neill has been an inspirational character in the success and will relish taking the team to the Euro 2016 finals.

Campaign rating: 10 out of 10.

Belfast Telegraph