With the Euro Finals of 2016 expanded to 24 teams and, on top of a guaranteed place for the top two qualifiers, still another opportunity to reach France via the third-place play-offs, it’s not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that two Irelands managed by two O’Neills could reach the promised land in two years’ time.
“It would be fantastic,” says Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill of the dream scenario of an all-Ireland presence at the finals.
“I think this is going to be a brilliant tournament. The new format gives countries like us, a Pot Five team, belief we can push for the play-offs, that we’re in with a fighting chance. In the World Cup, we were drawn against Portugal and Russia, and it’s hard to get your head around the idea that we can finish in the top two slots. But we can certainly target third in this qualification and maybe 13/14 or points will get us there.”
Following Sunday’s draw in Nice, the North are preparing to compete with top seeds Greece along with Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands in a Group F that seems more to the liking of Michael O’Neill than the Republic’s Group D does to his namesake Martin.
“I do think we have a fighting chance, to be honest,” he says. “One thing I’ve found in the job is the difficulty of getting points at this level. We got points off the bigger teams in the World Cup group and let ourselves down against the smaller teams. The Faroes Islands is always a difficult game for us, but the other three teams we’re more than capable of competing with, more than capable of taking points off and winning games against.
“Those three have not had much experience at qualification and that might all work in our favour. We know the availability of having our stronger players. Look at top seed Greece and what comes after that. We have to be pleased with that.”
The redevelopment of Windsor means attendances will be restricted to 10,000 for qualifiers.
“It won’t be the most pleasant place to play for teams to come to,” the former Shamrock Rovers manager observed. “We have to use anything we can to give us an edge.
“We saw in the last qualification that we made it difficult against Russia and Portugal — we beat Russia and pushed Portugal. We know what we’re capable of and we know where we slipped up.”
Whatever happens, Northern Ireland will make history against Finland in Belfast on March 29 next year when, for the first time, they play at home on a Sunday. On the same day, the Republic will be at home to Poland.
Meanwhile, Martin O’Neill has declined, for now, to address the issue of the potentiallyhostile crowd reaction which could face James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady when the Scottish-born players return to Glasgow with Ireland for their Group D qualifying game against Scotland in November.
“That’s in the future,” he parried, “let’s leave something to talk about.”
The manager was much happier talking about what he regarded as the impressive performance McCarthy put in for Everton in their narrow defeat to Chelsea at the weekend.
“James McCarthy did very well and young Coleman as well too. It’s about taking games by the scruff the neck now. Once in the second half, he’s driven forward with the ball about 30 or 40 yards.
“Those things he can do. The longer he’s playing as first choice in the side, the more confidence he’s getting, and you would think that can only benefit us.”
Now that the draw has made for the Euros, clarity is expected in the coming days from the FAI on Ireland’s end of season friendly programme which could see them playing one or two games in the US in early June.
There is still no official confirmation of a game against Portugal in New Jersey on June 10 but it could still go ahead, either as a stand-alone fixture or in tandem with another game in the States on June 5. Martin O’Neill has made it clear he is anxious to balance the value of playing friendlies against the effects on his players of the rigours of a long season.
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