Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland heroes of 1982 inspired Michael O'Neill - now he wants players to be icons for next generation

By Adrian Rutherford

Michael O'Neill believes Northern Ireland's Euro 2016-bound footballers can inspire a generation - just as he was by the heroes of '82.

He's also proud that the team "is a really strong reflection of the society we live in now" and said everyone can unite behind it.

O'Neill revealed how, as a teenager, he dreamt of playing for his country after being gripped by the exploits of Gerry Armstrong, Billy Hamilton and others at the World Cup in Spain.

He went on to make 31 appearances in the famous green and white jersey.

Now he is just days away from leading out Northern Ireland at their first major tournament for three decades.

The squad flies out of Belfast today ahead of their opening Euro 2016 game against Poland on Sunday week.

O'Neill has urged his players to write their legacies in the coming days, and become heroes for a new generation.

"I just hope that every young player that is born in Northern Ireland and plays football aspires to play for Northern Ireland," he said.

"Hopefully with the success that we've had and this team, it inspires that.

"We have players who are now 12, 13 and 14 - the way I was in 1982, which inspired me to come and play for Northern Ireland.

"There's no better way to do that than [by] qualification and success at a tournament."

The players fly out today for a pre-tournament training camp in Austria, before arriving in France on Sunday. Their opening game takes place a week later, against the Poles in Nice on June 12.

More than 40,000 fans are expected to travel for the tournament. These are exciting times for the national side, whose last major tournament was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. O'Neill believes it is an opportunity for the whole country to unite behind the team.

He has previously spoken about his own experiences of playing at a time when violence raged and football here was another source of division.

Today, though, he believes he leads a team which truly represents society.

"When I played in the Northern Ireland team, the team was always together as well - there was never any issues with that," he added.

"It was maybe different times in Northern Ireland then but certainly, as Northern Ireland is now, this team is a really strong reflection of the society we live in now."

He added: "The relationship between the players and supporters is stronger than maybe it's ever been."

O'Neill was speaking after revealing the 23 players who will be in his squad for the Euros.

The iconic Titanic Belfast was the venue for the announcement.

O'Neill, flanked by his wife Bronagh, was given a standing ovation as he arrived.

The Irish Football Association commissioned a spectacular video presentation, with players' faces projected on to the Giants Causeway.

The spine-tingling footage had been secretly filmed late at night a month ago. Footage was also shown of Northern Ireland's greatest footballing moments.

Images of a young Michael O'Neill finding the net drew loud cheers.

The audience included a member of each of Northern Ireland's three previous World Cup squads - Peter McParland, Pat Jennings and Billy Hamilton.

O'Neill said his current squad have the chance to write their names into history.

"The hard work has been done in terms of qualification but now is the chance to create a real legacy," he added.

"Watching the footage of the previous tournaments - to see Northern Ireland in 1982 was amazing," he said.

"Those memories of World Cups and major championships live with you for ever.

"The opportunity is there for our players to write their own memories and create their own history - let the dream continue."

The squad jets off from Belfast City Airport this morning for a training camp in Austria, before a final warm-up game against Slovakia on Saturday.

Belfast Telegraph