BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill believes his eclectic band of players from the lower divisions of English, Scottish and Irish football can pull off a surprise at Euro 2016 in their first major tournament for 30 years.
The continental competition has witnessed a few major upsets in its 56-year history with Denmark hauling themselves off the beach just days before Euro 92 to claim the title and Greece winning in 2004 as rank outsiders.
O’Neill’s team travel to France to take on Poland, Ukraine and Germany in Group C confident they can cause an upset to the established order and make the knockout stages.
“The goal has to be to try and qualify and that has to be the same for any of the small countries,” O’Neill told Reuters.
“I’m sure the Albanians, the Icelandic players, everyone will have the same type of goal at the end of it.
“Having got there, we don’t just want to go and take part. We’re in a tough group. But the small countries have punched above their weight and I think they’re capable of doing it.
“I think there will be a few surprise qualifiers for the round of 16 and we certainly aim to be one of them.”
Northern Ireland will be in the finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. But the nation is no stranger to causing an upset on the biggest stage.
Gerry Armstrong famously scored the winner against hosts Spain in Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium when Northern Ireland advanced to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1982. The memories of those successful days are fuelling Northern Irish hopes for Euro 2016.
“It’s been immense,” the 46-year-old O’Neill said of the response to his team’s qualification.
“I look at myself and I’m at an age where I remember 1982 and 1986, but basically anyone under the age of 40 doesn’t have that much recollection.
“There’s a whole generation of people 35 downwards who have never had the chance to go and watch Northern Ireland play in a major finals. Everyone’s talking about it and it’s dominating everything.”
O‘Neill said the classes of 1982 and 1986 had been an inspiration to him.
“When I came into the squad at 18, I was fortunate enough that some of those players were still around and I got to play with some of them as well,” he added.
”To get the chance to do this as a manager is fantastic.”
O’Neill, who recently signed a four-year contract to remain in charge of the team after the finals, has been at the helm of the Northern Ireland side since 2011.
O’Neill’s squad qualified for France as group winners ahead of Romania and Hungary but his side also notched up a victory over Fabio Capello’s Russia and drawn in Portugal in their previous World Cup qualifying campaign.
“We’ve beaten Russia, we’ve competed with Portugal, we’ve obviously qualified top of our group. So the challenge for us will be, assuming we can get out of the blocks quickly, a squad like ours over seven games will be challenged,” he said.
“We’ve got to play three games of such a high intensity over eight days. But like anything, if we get momentum, get something on the board and give ourselves some belief, then this team can be successful.”
Editing by Adrian Warner