Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Finland: We won't stop until we reach Euro finals, insists Roy Carroll

By Steven Beacom

Roy Carroll has talked openly in the past about the dark days in his personal life... the drinking, the depression and the gambling.

Happily, he's been in a good place for a few years now.

What is not so commonly known is when the amiable Fermanagh man suffered his lowest point on a football field.

And no, it wasn't the time he dropped the ball over the line when playing for Manchester United against Spurs and a goal was NOT awarded, making the moment even more memorable than it would have been.

Carroll looks back on a desperate night in Luxembourg with greater pain.

It was a World Cup qualifier against one of the minnows of international football in September 2013.

A few days before, Northern Ireland had put up a spirited performance at Windsor Park and led Portugal 2-1 until Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty were red-carded. Cristiano Ronaldo took advantage, netting a hat-trick to lift the visitors to a 4-2 victory.

In that campaign Northern Ireland endured some difficult moments against so-called lesser lights, not least when drawing in Belfast with Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, but even so, nobody saw what was coming at a rain-lashed Stade Josy Barthel, especially when Michael O'Neill's side took the lead early on.

By the end of that dreary evening Northern Ireland's players were trudging off the pitch in embarrassment having been defeated 3-2 with little Luxembourg celebrating a first home World Cup qualifying victory since 1972.

When that match cropped up at yesterday's press conference at the Culloden hotel, and how things have progressed under O'Neill in the 18 months that have followed, 37-year-old Carroll was typically honest.

"Coming off that pitch, it was horrible. That defeat was one of the lowest moments of my career," revealed Carroll, rested for the midweek friendly with Scotland.

Asked how the remarkable transformation took place from then to now, with Northern Ireland currently in second place in their group with a fantastic chance of qualifying for the finals in France, Carroll puts it down to mental toughness and an impressive 2-1 comeback victory in Hungary which kicked off the Euro 2016 games in style.

"Three days before Luxembourg, we were winning against Portugal. Then you go to Luxembourg and lose which was hard to take," said the Notts County number one, excellent for his country in the Euro campaign.

"But the players have bounced back. It's about mental toughness and in Budapest at the start of this campaign, losing 1-0 with 10 minutes left to go on to win 2-1, that was the biggest step for us. That's what kicked us on.

"This campaign has changed everything. When you win, and keep winning, it gives you belief. And you need belief in football and in life. That's what we've got now."

World boxing champion Carl Frampton was at the press conference, in a one off role as roving reporter for today's Football Focus programme on BBC1, and asked Carroll what it would mean to him to go on and finish what the team have started by making it all the way to France.

The reply: "Especially with what's happened in my life the past 19 years, it'd be great. There's been a lot of ups and downs. It'd be nice to finish on a high."

Before the question of retirement was posed, the goalkeeper quickly added: "I'm not saying I'm finishing. The manager Michael O'Neill has worked wonders since he's come in. Personally, for me, it'd be fantastic if we qualified for the finals."

On tomorrow's match with Finland, Carroll, who will win his 40th cap, stated: "It's a very big game for the country. Hopefully, three points would put a big gap between us and Finland, who are in fourth.

"After the way we've played in the first four games, if we win, it'll put us in good stead for the summer. There's a big game then as well, against Romania. Sunday is very important."

Just how important?

"This is one of the biggest ones, especially in my career because I'm looking to go to the finals. Everybody else is too. It's a big opportunity for us," added Carroll, who was impressed by the showing of fellow Fermanagh native Michael McGovern in Wednesday night's friendly defeat to Scotland.

"We've got nine points at the moment and it'll probably require 17 or 18 points to secure second, but we won't get carried away. One game at a time."

No better man to have between the sticks. If anyone deserves to make it to France, it's him.

Belfast Telegraph