In Northern Ireland’s Euro 2004 qualifying campaign, a team then managed by Sammy McIlroy finished bottom of its group and did not score a single goal.
Top of the pile were Greece, who went on to earn an implausible success in Portugal. Fast-forwards a decade and the roles were reversed as Northern Ireland topped Group F and made it to their first major tournament since 1986 and their first European Championship – with the Greeks this time rock bottom.
The success of Michael O’Neill’s side seems to have come from nowhere but they have a number of canny heads from the Premier League, who could just cause a surprise or two this summer.
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THE BIG QUESTION
Could Northern Ireland be Euro 2016’s Leicester? The question will be asked of others too but a country with a population of just 1.8 million has undoubtedly put others to shame and contains a number of players who, just like some of Claudio Ranieri’s side, have not always been fully appreciated during their careers.
They have been dealt the toughest of groups and progress to the knock-out stages would be another huge achievement, but such a motivated and close-knit set of players might be positioned ideally for the intensity of tournament football.
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HOW FAR WILL NORTHERN IRELAND GET AT EURO 2016?
O’Neill’s primary headache is in replacing Chris Brunt, the injured West Bromwich Albion left-back and mainstay of the side, with one of his centre-backs likely to fill the role unless he opts for the wing-back system he tested in November’s 1-0 friendly win over Latvia.
Corry Evans will compete for one of the midfield spots and could be used instead of Baird or Oliver Norwood.
Lafferty’s place is safe up front but there are other options too in the pacy QPR forward Conor Washington – who scored the winner against Slovenia in March – and perhaps Wigan’s in-form striker Will Grigg.
THE MANAGER: MICHAEL O’NEILL
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill gives instructions
Image credit: Reuters
O’Neill was not sure about taking a Northern Ireland job that seemed a poisoned chalice when he arrived in 2011 and successive heavy defeats to Norway and Holland – 3-0 and 6-0 – did little to suggest he had made the right choice.
But he has presided over a stunning turnaround, improvements in form during World Cup qualifying hinting at the deservedly-won Euro 2016 place that was to come. A former midfielder with 31 caps for the country, the 46-year-old has forged a close, club-like bond between his players and they have rewarded him with by taking the country to new heights.
TOP THREE PLAYERS
Steven Davis celebrates scoring against Tottenham
Image credit: Reuters
Steven Davis: Northern Ireland’s captain is a surprisingly underrated performer given that he is a consistent selection in an excellent Southampton side. Davis, a bundle of box-to-box energy despite now being 31, ended the season in fine form and will be pivotal to his team’s hopes this summer.
Kyle Lafferty: Little has gone right for the tall but surprisingly mobile striker at club level in the last couple of years but the Norwich striker has been outstanding for his country, scoring seven goals in qualifying and tearing into opposition defences.
Gareth McAuley: A late developer in top-level football terms, the 36-year-old West Bromwich Albion centre-back probably never thought he would see an occasion like this but is a rock for Northern Ireland and scored two vital goals in the qualifying win in the Faroe Islands.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
If he makes the final cut, Will Grigg will doubtless hope to be “on fire”. His superb season in League One with Wigan led to a supporters’ song about him becoming an internet sensation and spawning countless memes and videos.
JONATHAN WILSON’S KILLER KNOWLEDGE
The loss of Brunt at left-back is a major blow, but the shape will remain the same: a 4-1-4-1 headed by Lafferty with Davis breaking forward from central midfield, Chris Baird has a vital role as an extra shield between defensive and midfield lines.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Critics would say that Northern Ireland received a kind group, with Greece, Romania, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands hardly the most intimidating of opponents.
That would grossly understate their achievement against much bigger nations though, and they made remarkable short work of Group F to come out as winners. A late Lafferty winner in Hungary set the tone and Northern Ireland were clearly for real when, in October 2014, they won 2-0 in Piraeus.
A defeat in Romania was to prove their sole reverse; the Romanians would be beaten to first place by a point, while Hungary finished five points behind the Northern Irish in third.
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