Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill: We'll finish the job we started and qualify for Euro 2016 finals

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has outlined his belief that the team can finish what they started and qualify for the Euro 2016 finals.

Now approaching the business end of the campaign, with just four games left, O'Neill knows that wins next Friday away to the Faroe Islands and at home to Hungary the following Monday would see Northern Ireland take a giant step towards France next year.

When quizzed on whether the dream could become reality, confident O'Neill insisted: "Yes, of course I believe that. The players also believe it. There's no doubt about that. We have put ourselves in a great position."

Northern Ireland are in second place in Group F, one point behind leaders Romania and two ahead of Hungary, with the top two sure of qualification and third earning a play-off.

"When we looked at the group at the start, I felt we had an opportunity to finish in the top three. We've done better than we initially expected and we have a real opportunity to finish in the top two and aim to take it," added O'Neill as he announced his 26-man squad for the campaign defining double header.

"The focus and mentality of the players has been outstanding to date and we need to keep that level for the remaining fixtures."

O'Neill included Chris Brunt, Jamie Ward, Ben Reeves and Shane Ferguson in his panel even though all four are injury doubts while goalkeeper Alan Mannus and defender Lee Hodson have been recalled. Liam Boyce is also included with his former Cliftonville team-mate Joe Gormley, now with Peterborough, on stand by.

The home match with Hungary on September 7 will be 10 years on from Northern Ireland's famous 1-0 win over England, but O'Neill is taking one game at a time and thinking about the trip to the Faroes on September 4.

Not leaving anything to chance, the Northern Ireland boss has already been to the Faroes to inspect their plastic pitch and will use Bangor's synthetic surface as a training base for his players early next week, before they travel next Thursday.

The last time Northern Ireland were in the Faroes, under Nigel Worthington, they only managed a 1-1 draw. O'Neill feels that experience will come in handy.

He said: "In our squad eight players were involved in the 2010 game there, so they've had the experience of playing and having a disappointing result out there.

"I think that will work in our favour. It's not as if it's new to them. I think the experience of 2010 will be good, because we'll know what to expect and the type of game it will be.

"Their football is at an all-time high, so the Faroes will view this as another opportunity to get a good result, but if we can take three points in the Faroes, it'll put us in a very strong position.

"The Faroes are a fit team and intensity will be a big thing. If we don't match that we will be in trouble. We have to be prepared to be at our maximum in both games."

O'Neill admits that "the vulnerability" of the squad concerns him with a lack of depth a problem.

"It is a big issue for me," he said.

"The biggest success of this campaign has been the number of players who have played regularly. We haven't had to change the team very much.

"We have a lot of players who have played six games but we need some more players to step up and give us what Stuart Dallas did after two or three games and quickly become a starting player. We need some of the players who have been in the squad a lot longer to give us a bit more."

Kyle Lafferty is one player who couldn't have given anything more in this campaign.

Training again with Norwich City after a knee injury, the Fermanagh man is expected to lead the line for Northern Ireland in the Faroes and against Hungary, hoping to add to his five goals in the group so far.

Set to leave Norwich, either on loan or permanently, O'Neill is disappointed that his star striker is unlikely to get a shot at playing for the Canaries in the Premier League this season.

"Kyle has shown in this campaign what he's capable of. He has all the attributes to play in the Premier League. Whether he gets that opportunity with Norwich or has to go into the Championship to prove his worth remains to be seen," said O'Neill.

"If you play in a team that gets the ball in the box and away from home and sit deep, Kyle is a great outlet. To be fair to him, there have been periods when he hasn't been played in his natural position. He has hardly played for Norwich where I play him. I think he has been a bit unfairly judged recently at his clubs. If you stick with him and play him through the middle, he will prove he is a Premier League player."

Northern Ireland squad: Roy Carroll (Notts County), Michael McGovern (Hamilton Academicals), Alan Mannus (St Johnstone); Aaron Hughes (Melbourne City), Chris Baird (Derby County), Gareth McAuley (West Bromwich Albion), Jonny Evans (Manchester United), Craig Cathcart (Watford), Shane Ferguson (Newcastle United on loan at Millwall), Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood Town), Paddy McNair (Manchester United), Lee Hodson (MK Dons); Steve Davis (Southampton), Chris Brunt (West Bromwich Albion), Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Oliver Norwood (Reading), Pat McCourt (Luton Town), Stuart Dallas (Leeds United), Ben Reeves (MK Dons); Kyle Lafferty (Norwich City), Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock), Will Grigg (Wigan Athletic), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest), Caolan Lavery (Sheffield Wednesday), Liam Boyce (Ross County).

Belfast Telegraph