Having walked the red carpet at Palais des Congres, Michael O’Neill thoroughly enjoyed his day rubbing shoulders with the elite of European management.
France’s Didier Deschamps, Spain’s Vicente del Bosque, Germany’s Joachim Low and England’s Roy Hodgson were all in attendance alongside O’Neill and his namesake Martin in Paris yesterday.
For the younger O’Neill it brought home exactly what he had achieved in such a short space of time. He was given the VIP treatment, something he totally deserves for his contribution to Northern Ireland football.
“It’s great to be here, most Northern Ireland managers only watch the tournaments on TV, I’m here with Joachim Low and Vicente del Bosque, the managers who are at the top of their game,” he beamed.
“As expected the draw was done fantastically well and I think the tournament will be something special too.”
The draw wasn’t kind to O’Neill. World Champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine will be formidable opposition. The fact Germany are also in Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifying group — meaning the two sides will meet three times in 15 months — will surely add spice to occasion in the summer.
But while Germany is the glamour game, it’s Poland, the opening match for Northern Ireland in Nice on Sunday June 12, that O’Neill has set his immediate sights on. Germany is the third match of three in Paris Parc des Princes on June 21.
He knows a good result against the Poles would give Northern Ireland an excllent chance of reaching the group stages with Ukraine their second game in Lyon on June 16.
With the top two in each group automatically qualifying for the last 16 along with four out of the six third placed finishers, O’Neill is refusing to accept his boys will settle for being the basement side of Group C.
Indeed, if England top their group and Northern Ireland finish third, that could set up a huge match between the two countries in the first phase of knockout battles.
O’Neill says: “We’re here because we won our group and led from an early stage. We deserve our place here.
“It’s going to be very difficult when we come here, but I thoroughly believe we can be competitive, but also we can achieve something to get to the next round.
“You think four points would be enough to get you to a third-place finish so we need to aspire to that at least, but I think it’s very important to get something from your opening game.
“You have to do that because you come under immediate pressure in the second game.
“The best example of that I saw was Holland in 2012.
“They lost their first game, went on and lost all three.
“It is very tricky to make sure you’re right for that first game, you have to look to see what follows on from that.”