Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Greece: D-Day is here, look out France... We're on our way

By Steven Beacom

The reporter from French television channel Canal+ told Michael O'Neill that France was waiting for him and his team.

The Northern Ireland manager didn't bat an eyelid. Qualification has not been secured yet, but at yesterday's press conference O'Neill wasn't about to tell our friend 'attendez une minute' (hold on a minute).

Instead he replied by saying how much he would revel in taking Northern Ireland to what he feels will be 'a brilliant tournament'.

Make no mistake about it, while nerves may be tingling amongst supporters, O'Neill truly believes that come next June, the Eiffel Tower and other popular French tourist attractions will be over run by fans from our wee country.

In this campaign O'Neill has grown as a manager. So too his confidence in his team. Rightly so. They have passed virtually every test put in front of them. The 46-year-old has taught them exceptionally well.

The final examination awaits. Greece at Windsor Park tonight. Win and the trip to Finland for Sunday's last Group F game becomes one long party to celebrate the graduation of this Northern Ireland side from no-hopers to national hero status.

O'Neill admits he is prepared for qualification to go down to the 90th minute of that last match in Helsinki, but is intent on making sure it doesn't have to.

The message is to get the job done tonight, even though key figures Kyle Lafferty, Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin are suspended and Jonny Evans, who has not yet been ruled out of the Finland game, is injured.

O'Neill is expected to have Michael McGovern in goal, with a defence of Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Chris Brunt; Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood and Paddy McNair in midfield with Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward operating on the flanks behind striker Josh Magennis. The manager also knows that the likes of Corry Evans, Niall McGinn and Liam Boyce could prove more than useful off the bench.

"We don't need to outline the significance of the game against Greece to the players. They have been excellent and preparations have gone very well," he said.

"Obviously the injury to Jonny at the weekend was a blow but one thing I have noticed in the last three days, maybe more so than in the past, is that the squad is stronger now than at any time I've been in charge.

"I genuinely believe that we have the players to step in and deal with this game, in terms of dealing with the situation with Jonny not being available, and also with the suspensions we have.

"There are some players who have waited a long time for their opportunity and they're going to get it in a massive game. Everyone is looking forward to it.

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"The belief in the squad is fantastic. Looking at the training, it is very encouraging. Everything that we've seen this week encourages me to believe that we'll get what we need.

"All week the preparation has been around our strengths, what has made us successful in this campaign and re-emphasising that. We are the top goalscorers in the group. We're unbeaten at home as well.

"It's a case of belief. A case of trust among each other. That belief has grown game by game. These opportunities don't come around for Northern Ireland players very often.

"Players like our captain Steven Davis have gone through a lot of campaigns to get to this position and having had that experience they'll make sure this is an opportunity they'll take.

"If for some reason the result isn't what we hope for against Greece, we have to recover and be ready to play again on Sunday. That's a big challenge but that's why we have to prepare. We get two bites at this which is a nice position to be in but obviously we want to do it at the first attempt."

On what qualification would signify for the players, O'Neill added: "As an international player, you write your legacy in terms of the number of times you play, the number of memorable performances you have, and obviously if you get the chance to go to a major tournament. These players can write their legacy in the fact that they go to a major tournament."

The former Shamrock Rovers boss was full of praise for his players, especially the spirit and togetherness they have generated within the squad, and the Northern Ireland supporters ahead of the biggest game of his career.

He stated both have inspired him. In turn he has inspired them.

Belfast Telegraph