Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss O'Neill having the time of his life

By Steven Beacom

If you thought 2015 was good, wait until you see next year. That's the message from to the Green and White Army ahead of the Euro 2016 finals.

For the first time in 30 years Northern Ireland supporters will eat their Christmas turkey in the knowledge they have a major tournament to enjoy six months later.

Thousands will make the journey to France to roar on O'Neill's side who qualified as table toppers, losing only one of their 10 matches.

Making their debut at the European Championships, Northern Ireland will play Poland, Ukraine and World Champions Germany, with O'Neill believing his players can reach the knockout stages.

To do that they must finish in the top two in their group or as one of the four best third-placed sides.

After all the success in 2015 with Northern Ireland embarking on an eight-match unbeaten run and beating Greece on a famous October night at Windsor Park to qualify, when captain Steven Davis (right) was inspired, there is a growing sense that anything is possible.

For O'Neill this year has been the finest of his football life, which has seen him play for Northern Ireland and at the highest levels in England and Scotland as well as manage Shamrock Rovers to domestic glory and unprecedented joy in Europe.

"It has been the best year. You do feel it more as a manager than as a player. The defeats are a lot harder to take as a manager than a player, although in success there's a lot more to enjoy," said O'Neill, who won the Coach of the Year award at Sunday's BBC Sports Personality of the Year show.

He added: "Probably more so for me because the players have to go back to their clubs and refocus. I've had the luxury of enjoying qualification since October and I'm planning ahead as well.

"It's been a memorable year - not just in the campaign, there have been a lot of positives, such as the emergence of some of the players.

"The award on Sunday was fantastic as well. It's great to get that level of recognition."

O'Neill's preparations for next year are well under way. He has chosen Lyon as the team's base in France and is already analysing influential opponents his team will face in the Euro finals as he plots his way to further success.

He will use friendly games before the tournament to perfect certain tactics and formations.

"Hopefully we will deliver more of the same and even better in 2016," he says.

"That has to be the aim. When we get to the finals we want to be in as strong a place as possible.

"We don't want to lose all that momentum because it's taken us a long time to get it. The friendly games in March and June are very important to continue winning games and to see players continue to emerge because that's the only way we'll get stronger.

"I genuinely believe we can reach the last 16 in France. I have looked closely at Poland and Ukraine, who we play in our first two games.

"From qualifying I look at Poland's results versus Scotland and the Republic as there is a level of comparison while Ukraine reached the finals via the play-offs.

"I think with four third placed teams qualifying for the knockout stages we have a real chance and feel four points will put us in a strong position. It's how you get those points, but for me that first game against Poland is key.

"The first match of the qualifiers in Hungary when we won to gain confidence was crucial and it will be the same in France.

"We were in good physical shape in Hungary and that will be important again in the summer.

"We'll have a team that will go to the finals and give a really good account of themselves. Then we can move forward with optimism to the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, which starts in September, because we really want to do well then as well."

O'Neill tends to name 25 or 26 man squads, but for Euro 2016 he can only take 23.

The Northern Ireland boss, who in addition to that number will bring along a few youngsters for the experience, insists he will have no problems leaving anyone at home.

"At the end of the day the players who have done amazingly well in getting us to France will be on the plane if they are fit and well. Most people could pick 18 to 20 of the players that I will be taking," said the ex-Newcastle and Dundee United midfielder.

"The other places will be based on how players are doing with their clubs.

"There has to be a balance to the squad that you pick for the finals. Obviously you want your strongest squad, there's an element of loyalty there, but there's also an element of progression.

"There are players who will benefit from going to a tournament, and that will benefit the team going into the World Cup qualifiers.

"I will also probably look to bring two or three under-21 players with the squad who won't be able to play in the tournament but will be there to train and be with the squad.

"When you go with 23 players, you only have 20 outfield players, so if somebody has a niggle or a knock and you want to play 11 v 11, you can't do it.

"You end up sticking coaches in and you don't get what you want out of it.

"So we'll look at bringing two or three young players to supplement the squad and for the experience for them."

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