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Neil Lennon: Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland team are inspiring players of the future


Star man: Kyle Lafferty has gone from zero to hero with Northern Ireland

Star man: Kyle Lafferty has gone from zero to hero with Northern Ireland

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Impressed: Neil Lennon says Northern Ireland’s progress will inspire youngsters

Impressed: Neil Lennon says Northern Ireland’s progress will inspire youngsters


Star man: Kyle Lafferty has gone from zero to hero with Northern Ireland

Neil Lennon believes the stunning achievements of Northern Ireland's footballers have already completed one mission - whether they qualify for Euro 2016 or not.

The Bolton Wanderers manager was reduced to a nervous fan as Michael O'Neill's side attempted to seal a berth in France on Monday.

He was unable to watch the Group F qualifier against Hungary at Windsor Park because of a fans' event at his current club, but his country's continuing progress did not escape the Lurgan man's ears.

Lennon was delighted to hear about Kyle Lafferty's last gasp equaliser in the 1-1 draw that left Northern Ireland top of the table with two games remaining.

And he believes a new generation of footballers will be inspired by the team's feats.

The ex-Northern Ireland midfielder stated: "Whatever happens they've been absolutely brilliant and what it does for a country like Northern Ireland is it inspires the next generation.

"I remember growing up in 1982 and 1986 when we had the likes of Martin O'Neill, Gerry Armstrong, Pat Jennings and Norman Whiteside. That inspired a generation of players to come through and we haven't had that for quite a while.

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"So I'm hoping this run and being able to maintain it for a while, even though some of the players are getting a little bit older, can bring on a new block of players.

"It felt like a win in the end. I didn't get to see the game but with the way it finished and the reaction, it felt like a win.

"We need a win and we've got two games to do it, which would be a remarkable achievement in this day and age for a country as small as Northern Ireland.

"Michael's done an amazing job and the players have been a credit. They've been so resolute and mentally strong and that game typified the spirit - they didn't play well but they were able to dig out a result.

"That point will be precious and away from home they've looked very good and found a real way of playing."

Former Celtic boss Lennon did not qualify for the finals of a major tournament during his 40-cap Northern Ireland career, which ended in 2002 when he was forced to retire from international football after receiving a death threat before a friendly with Cyprus at Windsor.

He feels, though, that O'Neill's team has the foundation and spirit to finish off the job - and make Euro 2016 much more interesting in the process. He added: "We've got a great spine to the team in Kyle Lafferty, Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley. We're not blessed with individual talent but the team itself is the real star.

"For me, it looks like a club mentality at international level and it's got to be that way with Northern Ireland. Michael is very astute and tactically he's got it bang on so far. We've a home game against Greece and an away game at Finland, which are both winnable.

"It will be a great story to qualify and it's not happened since 1986, and Wales are on the cusp of something pretty special as well.

"It's great for the British game and it will make watching the championships this time a lot more interesting and a lot more fun."

Northern Ireland's main man has been Lafferty, scoring seven goals in the campaign.

Lennon admits he'd like the 27-year-old Kesh native at Championship outfit Bolton.

The pair had a public falling out when they were on opposite sides of the Old Firm divide, with a heated exchange on the touchline during a 2011 derby.

Lafferty had previously taunted then Celtic manager Lennon on Twitter after a Rangers win, saying: "Sweet o very sweet. Hahaha lennon lennon. What's the score hahaha."

He later said he regretted writing the message after hearing about the abuse Lennon was put through, but despite all that, the Bolton chief has considered a move for the Norwich striker and would again if he had the money.

"I've considered him in the past, but it's a question of finances," said Lennon.

"I like Kyle as a player and knowing him from Rangers, he can be a real handful.

"He can be a bit streaky as a player but he probably just needs an arm around him. His work rate is tremendous and he's been a huge influence on what Northern Ireland have done. But can I bring him here? It's probably a no."

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