Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill: We plan to embrace our Euro 2016 experience

By Steven Beacom in Lyon

Michael O'Neill has been waiting for this since last October. Back then Northern Ireland defeated Greece 3-1 in an epic evening at Windsor Park to seal qualification for the Euro 2016 finals.

In the months that have followed everything has been leading up to the team's arrival in France with the aim to hit the ground running once they got here.

Flying into Lyon airport from Slovakia yesterday, there was protocol to be observed. Local dignitaries had to be met and there were handshakes with Uefa officials. Then it was into the luxury team coach on the runway before a police escort to the hotel 45 minutes away.

And boy was it an escort... fit for royalty with outriders and a flurry of French police cars in front and behind a convoy of Northern Ireland and Irish FA personnel. Security was high on Uefa's orders.

Hoping all 23 of his players will settle into their new surroundings, O'Neill will get down to business today with his first training sessions in France at Saint-Georges-de-Reneins, about 40 minutes north of Lyon.

To help with numbers, the Northern Ireland boss is bringing Linfield's Paul Smyth and Glenavon's Joel Cooper over to the training camp.

What an opportunity for that pair to work with the likes of Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty and Gareth McAuley and O'Neill himself.

Already the former Shamrock Rovers boss has shown his man-management skills and tactical awareness in guiding Northern Ireland to the Euro finals and a record breaking 12 match unbeaten run.

Now comes his chance, with the football world watching, to move it up a notch when his side takes on Poland, Ukraine and world champions Germany.

On finally being in France, after training camps in Manchester, Dublin and Austria with games against Belarus and Slovakia thrown in for good measure, O'Neill stated: "There is a sense excitement for all of us. This is a new experience for myself, for all of the players and for the Association.

"We're going to embrace the whole week that lies ahead. We've a massive game to open the tournament against Poland in Nice. The build up to that game starts on Monday."

O'Neill added: "It's a fantastic achievement to be out here but having achieved that we want to leave our mark on the tournament.

"The main thing is that it's a positive experience and an enjoyable experience for everyone, and we'll only do that if we continue playing the way we have done recently."

Today will mark a special anniversary for three of the players in O'Neill's squads - goalkeeper Alan Mannus, Corry Evans and Shane Ferguson who made their international debuts on June 6. For Evans and Ferguson that was in 2009 against Italy and for Mannus it was way back in 2004 against Trinidad & Tobago.

Belfast Telegraph