Belfast Telegraph

Premier stars fly in and insist NI boys can continue daring to dream

By Graham Luney

Football legends attending the Irish FA's coaching courses are backing Northern Ireland to prolong their Euro 2016 dream by reaching the knockout stages.

Michael O'Neill and his men have already rocked Europe by topping qualifying Group F and they are hungry to keep silencing the doubters in France.

Placed in Group C with World champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine, Northern Ireland will be dismissed as whipping boys with former England favourite Michael Owen predicting an early departure home for O'Neill's side.

The talking will stop at 5pm in Nice tomorrow when Northern Ireland take on Poland in their opening clash with further battles to come against Ukraine on Thursday and Germany the following Tuesday.

In this week's Belfast Telegraph, French legend Alain Giresse also wrote off the chances of "far too limited" Northern Ireland but significantly more optimism and belief could be found at Stranmillis College, where former players are enhancing their coaching skills.

It's not only the Green and White Army that are daring to dream. Former internationals Benni McCarthy, Harry Kewell and Jonas Gutierrez believe Northern Ireland can defy the odds again and reach the round of 16 in their first ever European Championships.

And after that... well, anything is possible.

McCarthy, who won 80 caps for South Africa and played in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals, feels O'Neill and his men can draw inspiration from Porto's unlikely Champions League heroics in 2004.

The unfancied Portuguese side were managed by new Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho who produced his memorable sprint down the touchline at Old Trafford on the way to overcoming Monaco in the final.

Former Blackburn and West Ham striker McCarthy was instrumental in that success, scoring two goals against United in the second round.

"Most people are going to pick out Germany, Spain and France as the Euro 2016 winners but I disagree," said the former Celta Vigo ace who lives in Edinburgh and is his country's top goalscorer after finding the net 32 times.

"A lot of the big teams have underperformed at club level so this could be the year of the underdog.

"You could have one fantastic game against a top team like Germany who have an off day and you could be in the last 16.

"It happened with us at Porto when we won the Champions League despite not being the best team. How did we do it? We did the hard work, we ran harder and faster and teams that were superior to us had days when not everything went their way.

"We went about our business quietly and ended up going all the way. So Northern Ireland can make it past the group stages and then anything is possible."

The 38-year-old from Cape Town also believes O'Neill's side can exploit complacency among opponents, adding: "It's a difficult group but the bigger teams will assume Northern Ireland are an easy game and not focus on them. That can be exploited.

"Northern Ireland can spring a major surprise by getting out of the group."

Australia legend Kewell, who scored a goal against Croatia which took the Socceroos to the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup, also reflects on his own career to offer Northern Ireland fresh hope.

"It's a tough group but we faced a similar task in 2006 when we had Brazil, Croatia and Japan," said Kewell, who helped Liverpool secure Champions League glory in 2005.

"Everyone thought 'that was it, forget it' so it's sometimes nice to go into a group as underdogs. Winning one game could prove to be enough.

"You could then lose one, then draw one and that's how we got through, on goal difference.

"It's important to get off to a good start and that's the key to progressing. Anything is possible in football. These days there is not much difference between the players in terms of fitness and speed. Often it comes down to who wants it more."

The former Leeds United frontman is now coach of the Watford Under-21 side and his admiration for Craig Cathcart continues to grow.

"Craig is a great professional and a lot of the young players, especially the young centre-backs, look up to Craig," added Kewell, a close pal of Newport boss and former NI star Warren Feeney.

"He's a good solid defender and he's obviously had a wonderful campaign and season. Hopefully he can bring that good form with him to France."

Former Newcastle United favourite Gutierrez won 22 caps for Argentina, playing alongside Barcelona magician Lionel Messi, with another legend, Diego Maradona, barking orders from the sidelines at the 2010 World Cup.

"Anything can happen in these tournaments," said the 32-year-old, who joined Deportivo La Coruna after leaving the Magpies last year.

"We have seen national sides like Northern Ireland really develop and become stronger.

"It's a hard group for Northern Ireland but I believe they can go through. We have seen Greece and Denmark win the Euros before. There is strong togetherness in the Northern Ireland side because they have made it to the finals and now they have earned that privilege, they will want to make the most of this opportunity."

As for who will be crowned champions on July 10 in Paris, Kewell has a feeling that hosts France will be celebrating.

McCarthy feels Portugal cannot be underestimated while Gutierrez is a little less bold when predicting a winner, sensing that Germany and Spain might show their class.

One thing is certain - the boys will be following Northern Ireland's fortunes and they all sense this dream isn't over by a long shot.

Belfast Telegraph