Belfast Telegraph

One year from now, Euro 2016 will have just kicked off... here's 10 reasons why Northern Ireland will be at the party

By Steven Beacom

Fast forward to one year from now. It will be June 11, 2016 and we will all be talking about having watched the opening night of the European Championship finals. Who knows, Northern Ireland may have played in the first game against hosts France. What I am certain about is that Northern Ireland will be there. Still think they won't make it? Here's 10 reasons that may change your mind.

1. THE MANAGER: Michael O'Neill had a rough start as Northern Ireland boss. At the end of a hugely disappointing 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, there were some in the Irish FA who wanted him out.

Thankfully, IFA President Jim Shaw was right behind O'Neill and the rest is history... with Michael inspiring the players to great deeds with excellent man management, canny selections and tactical nous.

Without question the most diligent Northern Ireland manager I have ever dealt with, the players don't just perform for themselves, they go out on to the pitch to shine for him.

Even when Northern Ireland don't have games coming up, he is in constant communication with the players.

That may seem a small matter but believe me not every boss does it and it matters, especially at international level.

O'Neill will take Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals. Don't be surprised though if he leaves the job after that because there will be plenty of clubs chasing him. He would leave with the blessing of the fans having made their dreams come true.

2. KYLE LAFFERTY: What a difference a campaign makes. Lafferty has admitted himself that he let the side down in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Well, the Fermanagh man is certainly making up for it now. He has been magnificent in the Euro games, scoring five goals in five games and ripping defences to pieces.

When Lafferty is at his best he has pace, power and penetration. He's always had passion, but for Northern Ireland these days he is channelling it in the correct manner.

In Group F he has been unstoppable. If you were naming a best XI from the Euro 2016 qualifiers so far he would be in it. There is nothing to suggest that he can't continue this fabulous form for his country. On top of his game, the Kesh native is a Premier League striker.

3. STEVEN DAVIS: Southampton supporters love this guy. Northern Ireland fans love him even more and with good reason. It was no coincidence that the only defeat in the Euro campaign so far - in Romania - came when he was injured.

Davis makes the team tick. Other players are lifted by his presence. The midfielder is a class act who has become a fine leader for Northern Ireland.

4. THE VETERANS: Roy Carroll (37), Aaron Hughes (35), Gareth McAuley (34) and Chris Baird (32) know this is their final shot at qualifying for a major tournament... and have been playing like it.

All are major influences on the field and off it. They have been there during the bad times for the international side. Now this fab four are relishing the good times.

I can see them all retiring after the Euro 2016 campaign and they will be determined to go out on a high at the finals.

5. BOYS BECOMING MEN: Aside from Lafferty and Davis, the player who has most impressed me in this campaign has been right back Conor McLaughlin.

He was relatively unknown in Northern Ireland until last September when he played exceptionally well in the opening group win in Hungary. He has continued to deliver ever since forming a terrific partnership with Jamie Ward on the right flank.

You can see him maturing as a footballer at international level and the same could be said of Oliver Norwood, another who has come on leaps and bounds in this campaign.

6. THE OPPOSITION: When I predicted Northern Ireland would qualify before a ball had been kicked in the Euro 2016 campaign, I was laughed out of court.

One of my reasons then was down to the team getting lucky in the draw. Greece were considered favourites and Romania were always going to be up there challenging but Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands weren't exactly great shakes, giving Northern Ireland a genuine chance of fighting it out for the top three places.

A third-place finish guarantees at least a play-off. Third is now not on the agenda. Due to Greece falling to pieces, O'Neill's men are fighting for a top two spot and automatic qualification. They will get it.

7. CLUB OR COUNTRY: Several of the Northern Ireland players are not featuring on a regular basis at club level these days. Ideally, O'Neill would like to see them all play at a high level, but on the upside when they turn up for international duty they are raring to go. In the past that has not always been the case.

Withdrawals from the squad, which used to go into double figures, are now down to the bare minimum.

8. TOGETHERNESS: Players always say the spirit in the camp is excellent. For this group that is actually true.

9. THE FANS: The support home and away from the Green and White Army in this campaign has been outstanding. They will continue to roar the team all the way to France.

10. TIMING: Come 2016 it will be 30 years since Northern Ireland last reached the finals of a major tournament. Nice round figure.... 30 years of hurt about to end. Wonder if David Baddiel and Frank Skinner are free to do our song for Europe... sorry, almost forgot, Snow Patrol already have that covered!

Belfast Telegraph