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IFA boss David Martin cautious following Euro 2020 draw

Irish Football Association president David Martin
Irish Football Association president David Martin

By Paul Ferguson

As Irish FA President David Martin reflected on the Euro 2020 finals draw in Bucharest on Saturday, he was understandibily coy and cautious.

After all, Northern Ireland were in the draw, but they haven't actually qualified.

They have been given a temporary pass to play with the big boys, but it can be easily revoked.

Some 12 teams who were represented at the Romexpo Exhibition Centre the Romanian capital will not be taking part in the finals which, for the first time ever, are being staged all over the continent next summer.

The play-offs, taking place in March, will eliminate the unlucky dozen.

Only four teams will have their temporary passes upgraded to VIP status.

Northern Ireland know they must navigate a way past Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 26 along with a final against either the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia at Windsor Park five days later, if they are to claim their reward.

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The Irish FA insist Michael O'Neill will be in charge of the team for those games, despite his position with Stoke City. Sunday Life Sport understands no move for a new manager will come until Northern Ireland have ended their Euro 2020 commitments, with Motherwell chief Stephen Robinson their current preferred option.

Then, if Northern Ireland come out of the play-offs victorious, they face games against Poland, Sweden and Spain on the greatest European stage of all.

For the winners of Northern Ireland's play-off path have been drawn in Group E and it has been confirmed that will mean two games at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin ahead of a clash with Spain at Athletic Bilboa's San Memes Stadium, which will obviously evoke memories of Gerry Armstrong's winning goal against the Spanish in their own backyard during the 1982 World Cup finals.

Northern Ireland kicked off their Euro 2016 finals tournament against Robert Lewandowski's Poland in Nice, which they lost 1-0, and if they are at the Euro 2020 spectacular, then they would open again with the Poles, this time at the Aviva on June 15.

Four days later would come a date with the Swedes in Dublin before having to travel to the Basque country for their final group game on June 24.

President Martin, speaking to Sunday Life Sport from Bucharest, said: "We can't look beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina. This draw will count for nothing if we are unable to get past Bosnia and then Slovakia or the Republic in the play-offs.

"We have two Cup finals to reach the finals and the players have a great incentive because they now know the reward.

"But we have to be realistic and Bosnia is all we can focus on. We lost twice to Bosnia in the Nations League last year and that was largely down to their lethal striker Edin Dzeko, who was the difference and gave them a cutting edge.

"We can take confidence, though, from the fact that in Belfast we played them off the park and it's over 20 years since I remember a Northern Ireland team being so dominant. Ultimately however, there was no reward.

"But this time last year was the draw for the Euro qualifiers in Dublin when we were given the task of coming through a group which contained Germany and the Netherlands, along with Estonia and Belarus. If we were realistic the best we could hope for was a play-off, which we have, but I don't think too many teams at our level would have pushed the Dutch and Germans so hard.

"And there is the prospect of two games in Dublin which is pretty ideal for the fans. If you look at Wales, they have to go to Baku in Azerbaijan and Rome.

"But if we get through, the fact our supporters can go and watch Northern Ireland just down the road would be special. Then hopefully it wouldn't be too hard to get flights to Spain.

"Going back to France and Euro 2016, that was great for our supporters and they came in their numbers but with Dublin easily accessible by car, train or bus, I think most fans would have bitten your arm off for that."

O'Neill's men have their eye on the prize and in March they must go and grab it - otherwise last night's draw was irrelevant for the men in green.

Belfast Telegraph

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