Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland really can be a knockout at Euro 2016: Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has labelled 2015 an 'amazing' year insisting that the team can produce more heroics at the Euro 2016 finals and qualify for the knockout stages in France.

O'Neill has been the guiding light for the team, who capped off an incredible 12 months on Friday night by beating Latvia 1-0 in a friendly at Windsor Park taking Northern Ireland's unbeaten record to EIGHT games.

Not since Billy Bingham's glorious days in the 1980s has a Northern Ireland side been on a run like that.

And not since that era has there been qualification for a major tournament, which was achieved last month when Northern Ireland beat Greece 3-1 on an epic evening in Belfast. A few days later O'Neill's men drew 1-1 in Finland to secure top spot in the Group F table.

The momentum was maintained with Steven Davis scoring the only goal of the game against the Latvians on Friday.

O'Neill won't have all of his players together again until March, when two friendly fixtures will be played, but that won't stop him working towards making the team a success at next year's finals and preparing as much information as possible for his players once the Euro 2016 group opponents are known in December.

"It is difficult to assess our chances until we know who will be in our group, but right now I do genuinely believe that we are capable of getting out of the group," said O'Neill.

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"That has to be our objective. Our challenge in France will be that we will be playing tournament football which will be a different dynamic to the qualifiers.

"Going to Euro 2016 the key factor for us will be the preparation. We must make sure we are completely prepared, in terms of fitness and tactically.

"We will have to play the three group games at our maximum."

Reflecting on 2015 as a whole, O'Neill stated: "It's been an amazing year. From the start of the campaign when you look at how the team has grown, the stadium, the fans, the team...everything seems to be going on an upward curve and when you get all that going in one direction it is great to be part of it. I suppose I have grown with the success of the team.

"There is a great sense of satisfaction in terms of what we have delivered. That's why I wanted to bring the players home for the game with Latvia to see how much what they did has meant to the people here."

As for his most memorable moment of the campaign, that was provided by Kyle Lafferty on a balmy night in Athens when Northern Ireland won 2-0.

"I will always remember Kyle's goal in Greece. We were 1-0 up and I was thinking we could win this and it would put us in a really strong position in the group.

"Then after half-time Kyle beat their last defender just inside their half 40 yards from goal and set off towards the area being chased by the Greek defender.

"There was a lot that could have gone wrong but he produced a fantastic finish. His execution was perfect. That for me will always remain the goal of the campaign. That was the one that really set us on our way.

"The injury time equaliser at home to Hungary was another hugely significant goal because it kept distance between ourselves and Hungary in the group. It was also the nature of it because we were down to 10 men and we had lost a bad goal ourselves and it looked as if our campaign could possibly unravel and we clawed our way back with Kyle's goal.

"And then the next month we played against Greece at home and beat them 3-1 to qualify. The goals that night scored by Steven (Davis) and Josh (Magennis) will always stand out. All in all it has been a great time for the Northern Ireland team."

Belfast Telegraph