Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland close in on Fifa rankings high

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is not unduly bothered by the Fifa rankings. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that eight months into his reign, his team were rated at an all-time low for the country at 129th.

He thought at the time that the figure was ridiculous and while since then Northern Ireland have moved up a whopping 100 places, don't expect him, unlike some of his predecessors, to be leaping about in triumph at the remarkable rise, moving to 29th position.

The latest ratings released by Fifa mean that after qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals last month, Northern Ireland are just two below their highest ever ranking which was 27th in August 2007.

That came on the back of David Healy scoring winning goals against the likes of England, Spain and Sweden at Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland's record in friendlies has been woeful in recent years, but if the players need an incentive to end their run without a win since 2008 in games without points, victory over Latvia, ranked 99th, in Belfast next Friday could see them jump to an all-time high.

As for the other home nations going to Euro 2016, England are up to ninth and Wales are now in 15th. Scotland are in 44th and the Republic of Ireland, ahead of their Euro 2016 play-off with Bosnia and Herzegovina, are up to 42nd. Belgium are top ahead of Germany and Argentina.

Chris Baird has played a key role in Northern Ireland's rise and although he has not started a game for Derby in six weeks, his professionalism at the club has been hailed by Rams boss Paul Clement.

"Chris has been fantastic. He is the captain of the team and has supported his team-mates and understood the team has been doing well without him," said Clement.

Carroll's Cup runneth over after reunion with Class of '92

Roy Carroll was in the last Manchester United side to lift the FA Cup. That May day in 2004, after Millwall had been defeated 3-0 in the Millennium Stadium final, Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt all collected winners medals too.

Tonight all six are involved in another Cup tie. The first round tie won’t have the glamour of 11 years ago, but it will be intriguing nevertheless when Carroll’s Notts County, from League Two, travel to face Evo-Stik League Northern Premier side Salford City, who are owned by United’s ‘Class of 92’ — the Nevilles, Giggs, Scholes and Butt.

The 38-year-old Fermanagh man would fancy getting one over his ex-team-mates and knowing Roy, if England coach Gary Neville is attendance he’ll tell him Northern Ireland want to meet them in next year’s Euro finals!

Tonight’s game is live on BBC 2 starting from 7.30pm.

Belfast Telegraph