Belfast Telegraph

Race for places in Northern Ireland squad starts now for the Euro 2016 opener

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill will already have thought about it - his starting XI for his country's first match at the European Championship finals.

You can bet your bottom euro, his players will have too, all dreaming of a place in the side in France next June.

That opening game for Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 is going to be monumental.

There's the historic element for starters, the pride and joy of being involved and also the staggering profile it will bring.

Northern Ireland have played in three World Cups (1958, 1982 and 1986), but given the global television audiences that view football now compared to then, when O'Neill's side kick-off their tournament next year they will do so being watched by more people than ever before.

Who wouldn't want to be part of that?

The race to be involved in O'Neill's squad and then team in France effectively starts now.

Sentiment won't come into it for the manager. He is determined to make an impact in the finals and won't involve anyone in rotten form just because they did well for him in the successful qualifying campaign, which climaxed with that unforgettable 3-1 win over Greece at Windsor Park last week to secure a place in France and Sunday's 1-1 draw against Finland in Helsinki to clinch top spot in the group.

O'Neill can select a 23-man squad for France. Injuries permitting, here's my certs to travel:

Goalkeepers: Michael McGovern, Roy Carroll, Alan Mannus.

Defenders: Conor McLaughlin, Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Chris Brunt, Paddy McNair, Shane Ferguson.

Midfielders: Chris Baird, Oliver Norwood, Steven Davis, Jamie Ward, Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas, Niall McGinn.

Forwards: Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis.

That means there are three slots available and most of them are in attack, which means a straight shoot-out between Liam Boyce, Billy McKay, Will Grigg, Paddy McCourt and Caolan Lavery plus Martin Paterson, who recently returned to English football with Blackpool from the MLS in the USA and of course secured O'Neill's first victory as Northern Ireland boss with the winning goal against Fabio Capello's Russia at Windsor Park.

Also hoping to take the trip to France will be full-backs Ryan McGivern, Ryan McLaughlin and Daniel Lafferty and midfielder Ben Reeves, but they will need big performances in the months ahead.

Young Doncaster Rovers defender Luke McCullough is ahead of them in the pecking order at the moment.

As for the 11 lucky men to play in that first Northern Ireland game in June, if available I can see O'Neill opting for this line-up: McGovern, C McLaughlin, McAuley, J Evans, Brunt, Baird, Norwood, Davis, Ward, Dallas and Lafferty.

237 Days to go

Belfast Telegraph