Belfast Telegraph

No excuses, Northern Ireland have a real chance for a place in the Euro 2016 finals

By Steven Beacom

Over 1000 Northern Ireland fans will be in Budapest on Sunday and it won't just be for the goulash!

Tasty as the Hungarian dish is, the Green and White Army are travelling to see their team devour the Magyars, who have not been mighty for decades.

After the disappointment and despair of the World Cup campaign, there is hope again amongst Northern Ireland supporters ahead of the 2016 European Championship qualifiers.

Reasons for that? Football followers always seem to find hope from somewhere, the draw was relatively kind and Uefa have decided that three teams from the groups rather than two have a chance of qualifying because there will be 24, not 16 nations, in the next finals.

The joke doing the rounds when that decision was made was that it would be harder for countries NOT to make the show in France than to get there!

Given that 23 countries out of the 53 teams in the qualification process will be saying Bonjour to the hosts, it provides a golden opportunity for some of the lesser lights, like Northern Ireland, to shine.

I believe this is our best chance of qualifying for years...and if we don't do it this time, I'm not sure when we ever will.

Saying it's now or never may seem a touch over the top, but given the ages of the most important members of the current squad, the quality of those coming behind and the fact that other nations have found a way of developing and improving their youngsters quicker than us, that statement isn't as dramatic as it seems.

What is certain is that this is a huge campaign for manager Michael O'Neill, who is under pressure to deliver after a poor first qualifying series, plus senior players such as Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Gareth McAuley, likely to retire from international football when their involvement with Euro 2016 is over. Obviously they would prefer it to be after the finals in France rather than the last group game in Finland in October next year.

The experience of those three will be vital to O'Neill in the 10 Group F fixtures. Goalkeeper Roy Carroll, Jonny Evans, Steven Davis, Chris Brunt, Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty also have the ability to make an impact.

Too many of them have not performed to a consistent high level for Northern Ireland. Now is the time to start.

They should be excited by the group they find themselves in. It may not offer a chance to pick up shirts from famous Dutch, Italian or Spanish stars but taking on Greece, Romania, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands provides an inviting opportunity to qualify.

There is nothing to fear here. No excuses. In recent years only Greece have shown the know-how to qualify on a regular basis for major tournaments, but they aren't exactly Germany are they?

Romania, Hungary and Finland are beatable at Windsor with the type of high energy display that saw off Russia in Belfast in one of two highlights of the last campaign. The other was a spirited 1-1 draw in Portugal, which showed the team CAN collect points away from home, when they put their minds to it and the tactics are right.

Northern Ireland can do some damage here starting in Hungary, nine years to the day after our epic victory over England, and hopefully finishing with a two legged play-off, assured with third place in the group, when 18,000 fans would be roaring our boys on in the home tie at the new Windsor Park.

Wouldn't that be something?

Sweden 1958, Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986. That's where and when Northern Ireland qualified for World Cups. The last time we were close to a major tournament was Euro 2008 when, thanks to David Healy's goals, we finished behind Spain and Sweden. The same position could take us to Paris.

Northern Ireland have never reached the Euro finals. France 2016 can put that right.

Belfast Telegraph