Belfast Telegraph

Why England could learn lessons from Northern Ireland

Both sides made their exit in the last 16, but will have contrasting memories of France

Steven Beacom

Nothern Ireland exited the Euro finals in France in the last 16 of the competition. England were eliminated at the same stage. That is where the similarities end for the nations at the tournament.

When Northern Ireland's journey finished in France there was disappointment, but immense pride.

At the end of the road for England, fury and total embarrassment were the overriding emotions.

On Monday night at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, 10,000 fans turned up to salute the Northern Ireland heroes at a homecoming party to cherish.

The only way those numbers would show up for England's players would be if they were put in stocks and supporters were allowed to throw rotten apples at them.

While Northern Ireland enjoyed their first major finals in 30 years, this was another tournament to endure for the English.

In just about every key area at Euro 2016, Northern Ireland outperformed England.

The managers

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill left France with talk that in the weeks and months to come, he will be a wanted man with clubs interested in giving him a job. Roy Hodgson departed without one, resigning moments after England's humiliating 2-1 defeat to Iceland.

Hodgson had to go. Northern Ireland followers are desperate for O'Neill to stay.

The preparation from O'Neill ahead of Euro 2016 was superb, right down to putting family pictures in the hotel rooms of players to give them a pre-tournament boost and make them feel at home.

Tactically, while perhaps not doing everything right for the first game against Poland which was lost 1-0, O'Neill showed what an astute manager he is with the right calls against Ukraine and Germany in the other group games.

In the last 16 clash with Wales, he out-thought opposite number Chris Coleman only to end up losing through an unlucky own goal from Gareth McAuley.

O'Neill's attention to detail is legendary now within the Northern Ireland camp. He has proved his man management capabilities too.

In contrast, Hodgson failed to lift his team when they needed it most, trailing at half-time against Iceland. They lacked any sort of spark and tactically the former Fulham boss looked out of his depth.

There were so many strange decisions, such as taking a match-starved Jack Wilshere to France in the first place to telling Harry Kane, born to score goals in the box, to take the corners in the opening game.

For his side's final group encounter against Slovakia, Hodgson made six changes to his starting XI and it backfired with England only drawing 0-0.

Compare that with O'Neill, who after the loss to Poland shocked everyone by making five switches and dropping star striker Kyle Lafferty. It turned out to be a masterstroke with Northern Ireland defeating Ukraine 2-0.

It's a pity England didn't beat Slovakia because then they would have topped their group and faced Northern Ireland in the last 16. There is little doubt that O'Neill would have won that tactical battle.

The players

Former West Ham striker Dean Ashton tells a story about going into the England squad for the first time and around half a dozen of his new international team-mates not uttering one word to him during the few days he spent with them.

In the past there have also been talks of cliques with club colleagues sticking together.

There is no fun in playing for England. Every English player may dream about putting on the shirt with the Three Lions on it, but the reality can hit them hard.

No matter how many times they tell you how passionate they are about playing for their country, question marks are raised at every tournament about that very issue and Euro 2016 has been no different with the England stars wilting mentally and physically in Nice as the Iceland players grew with every passing second.

Most of the England team play for big clubs and in big Champions League or Premier League fixtures, so an international is just like another game to them, not an occasion to savour like it is for the Northern Ireland players.

All of O'Neill's team declared that the Euro 2016 finals were the biggest and best football period of their lives.

And they lapped up the experience together, as a proper team. All of them happily talked to each other in France and relished the craic, especially when Lafferty was clowning around.

There is a spirit among the Northern Ireland players. O'Neill's team would do anything for the man next to them as illustrated in France.

Honest in interviews, they are also a modest bunch.

A great example of that was at the Titanic Quarter on Monday night. Interviewed minutes after the homecoming party was over by a non-football fan, Northern Ireland's inspirational captain Steven Davis was asked at the end of the chat for his name and position.

"Steven Davis, midfielder," he said with good grace and without a hint of ego. Can you imagine the reaction of England players being asked that question?

The fans

The French people took the Northern Ireland supporters to their hearts, yet when England fans went home with their under-performing team the hosts were delighted.

It should be noted that the majority of England supporters are decent people just there for the football, but they do have an unruly following who cause trouble, as was seen early on at the tournament.

It's these hooligans who let their nation down.

Northern Ireland fans, with their endless singing, dancing on the streets and ability to have fun, did their country proud.

The unity between them and the team is extraordinary. There is no such togetherness between England's multi-millionaires and their supporters, who feel detached from their players rather than right there with them.

England could learn a few lessons from our astute manager, our committed players and our glorious Green and White Army.

Belfast Telegraph