While Wales stole most of the headlines at Euro 2016 for their remarkable run to the semi-finals, Northern Ireland also had a tournament to remember; reaching the knockout stages and only just losing to the Welsh in a tense last-16 match. Four years on, Michael O’Neill’s side are hoping to make it back to another major tournament.
The team are gearing up for the qualification play-offs, where they face Bosnia and Herzegovina. After that, there’s a potential play-off final with either Slovakia or the Republic of Ireland. The latest UEFA Euro 2020 odds look to be against Northern Ireland for the clash in Zenica. But this side relished the role of underdogs in the past and no doubt fancy their chances of causing an upset.
There’s a special poignancy to this play-off campaign, as it will represent O’Neill’s final matches in charge before he departs to focus full-time on his club job at Stoke City. The 50-year-old has been responsible for some of the best success in Northern Irish football history, guiding them to their first ever European Championship in 2016, and only just missing out on World Cup qualification in a close-fought play-off defeat to Switzerland.
Northern Ireland: Can They Make It?
If O’Neill could mastermind a return to the European Championships, it would be the fitting climax to a spell in charge that has been an unqualified success. Northern Ireland’s players and supporters alike will be sorry to see the back of him. It may prove that O’Neill’s swansong could be the motivating factor that gives the Green and White Army the extra edge in the play-offs.
They had a solid qualification campaign, which should give them confidence heading into the Bosnia match. This is despite featuring in a difficult group that included Germany and the Netherlands. They recorded two wins against both Belarus and Estonia, as well as a home draw with the Dutch. While the team didn’t quite hit the scoring heights O’Neill would have liked, they showed admirable professionalism to ensure a third-place finish.
The task at hand
As for their play-off opponents, Bosnia could only manage fourth in the six-team Group J; their away-form leaving a lot to be desired. Head coach Dušan Bajević will be pleased that they welcome Northern Ireland to Zenica. That compares to making the difficult trip to Belfast’s Windsor Park. It may be that home advantage makes all the difference.
Bosnia can still count on the enduring class of players like Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanić; lads who have been around the block as far as high-level European football is concerned. If they are to beat Northern Ireland, that experience will be vital.
O’Neill’s men perhaps don’t boast such stellar names. But throughout his tenure, this Northern Ireland team had a remarkable collective spirit in. That has bled through to supporters as well. Windsor Park is consistently packed nowadays, which is in stark contrast to the Nigel Worthington era. Back then, good results were few and far between.
Northern Ireland fans now have a team they can be confident in. It’s not necessarily that they’ll win every match. But fans will trust them to put in the effort required to compete at the highest level of international football. It’s been a long and memorable journey under O’Neill. And there may just prove to be the happiest of endings for all concerned.