Throughout their footballing history, they continued to fight for their place amongst the world, and Europe’s, greatest international teams. In the past, their attempts were successful for the World Cup, but in recent times, they’ve been consistently unsuccessful. Regardless of their lacklustre attempts and failing to compete with the ‘big dogs’, they continued to fight again and again and never gave up. John Smith makes his debut for Outside of the Boot, telling us the story of Northern Ireland, history in the making.
They say that if you truly work hard enough for your dreams, nothing is impossible. The Euro 2016 tournament thus far has produced new shocks, surprises and teams to enter the history of one of football’s greatest tournaments. One of the biggest debuts into international football competition comes in the form of Northern Ireland. The Green and White Army have had a surprising, but brilliant debut, to the competition.
Their first ever game within the European competition came in the unfortunate form of a 1-0 loss to Poland. Poland fairly earned their first Euro win in their seventh attempt after they dominated Northern Ireland for a majority of the game. However, the history makers of the Green and White Army saw their team triumph against Ukraine in an unforgettable 2-0 win, with goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn gifting the side their first ever goals and victory in Europe’s biggest international competition.
The third game for the side proved to be the ultimate test to see how far they have come. World Cup champions Germany were the difference between Northern Ireland progressing to the last 16, or, leaving the tournament. The Germans proved to be far too good on the night, making sure that Northern Ireland did not have a lot to do. Northern Ireland only completed a minor 116 passes, whilst only having 29% ball possession. The luck proved to be on the side of the latter, as they only lost 1-0 to Germany.
The result in particular is significant as a result of the fact that it did not make a lot of impact on Northern Ireland’s goal difference. Turkey’s 2-0 triumph versus Czech Republic as well as Albania only scoring one versus Romania have helped cement Northern Ireland’s place in the final 16 of the competition.
Now that Northern Ireland have confirmed their place in the last 16 of the tournament – with the help of Turkey – the current side will be able to be proud of what they have accomplished for their country. Their first ever run in European’s biggest international competition has most certainly been a successful one thus far, and finally gives the country something positive to cheer for once again.
Although unsuccessful for over 30 years, the Green and White Army have given their country something to cheer for in the past – qualifying for the World Cup tournaments in 1958, 1982 and 1986 respectively. Players including Danny Blanchflower, Pat Jennings, Mal Donaghy, Jimmy McNoll and Billy Bingham have all assisted the country and helped produce never-forgettable moments.
Going back to the World Cup in 1958. Northern Ireland earned their position in the competition for the first time in their entire history. People’s opinions on the side were not very good, since, people believed the Northern Ireland were not capable of getting further than the Group Stages of the competition. With a group consisting of former World Cup winners Germany as well as Argentina and Czechoslovakia, the Northern Irish chances to progress were cut significantly slim.
Argentina were easily the worst of the group, whilst Germany claimed victory at the top of the table. Consistent goalscoring performances by Peter McParland saw Northern Ireland reach the Quarterfinals at their first attempt within the tournament, winning a playoff game versus Czechoslovakia to reach the final eight.
Unfortunately, the Green and White Army were drawn versus eventual third placed team France in the final eight and were humiliated 4-0 by the French side. The uninspiring performances by Northern Ireland following the World Cup group stages resulted in them being a part of no major international competition until the World Cup tournaments over 20 years later.
Their next shot at international competition came in the form of qualifying for the 1982 World Cup. They impressed during the first round, defeating Spain and finishing top of their group. Unfortunately, their positive run came to a sudden end as they left the competition the following round, once again losing to France, but also, drawing with Austria.
Their final opportunity of playing in an international competition came four years later, as Northern Ireland reached their final World Cup competition. Unfortunately for the Green and White Army, they suffered their worst campaign within the tournament, with defeats against Spain and Brazil.
Following consistent failed attempts of reaching another important international tournament, the current Euro 2016 tournament has become the first time Northern Ireland have reached the European competition. Also, it is the first competition they have competed in since their failed attempts at the 1986 World Cup.
Producing a new era and phenomenal achievement for the Green and White Army proved to be rather easy at first- successfully qualifying for the tournament by winning 6 and drawing 3 games. They outlasted everyone else in their group (Romania, Hungary, Finland, Faroe Islands, and Greece) and finished top of their table.
What makes their qualification that much richer is the fact that their players are drawn from second smallest group of players. This tournament, Northern Ireland are the second smallest team within the entire competition – with only Iceland surpassing them with a population of less than 350,000, making them the smallest ever team to compete. The underdogs that are represented through their team makes their current run in the competition that much better.
Northern Ireland’s defensive style of play along with their overall lineup has been a great benefit towards securing their place in the tournament. The Green and White army are known to play a strong defensive line and allow their opponents to have a majority of the possession of the ball. When their defensive tactics are used effectively, it makes it very hard for the opposing team to exploit and break down the defence and look for chances at goal.
Northern Ireland’s successful defensive display versus Ukraine is a clear identification of how effective their style can be when utilised to the best of its ability. Despite having only 34% possession of the ball the entire game, on top of a poor 64% passing accuracy rate, Northern Ireland successfully limited Ukraine’s chances and earned their first ever win in European competition.
In addition to this, despite losing to most recent World Cup winners Germany, the side were extremely lucky in preventing their opposition from scoring more than once. 7 of the players within the German’s starting lineup also played during the humiliation of Brazil in a 7-1 victory for the Germans. With 71% ball possession as well as making 26 attempts at goal, Die Mannschaft were simply not good enough in front of goal, supporting their opponent’s quest of reaching the knockout stages.
The defensive displays by Northern Ireland have been an effective style to play for them to use. In order to get chances at goal, they typically try to find opportunities to breach the opposition and have an attempt at goal with a counter attack. However, they have been unsuccessful in the Euros thus far to effectively use the counter, with goals coming from a set piece and a tap-in.
Current Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has had a highly successful tenure, playing to the advantages of his side to ensure qualification as well as a potential last 16 place. He has proven to be spot on with his tactics, as previously noted on some occasions, which have helped ensure their current position. On top of this, players such as Niall McGinn, Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans are just some of the people who have also proved their importance in their respective positions.
To conclude, the current Northern Ireland team have been successfully able to produce a new era and historical moment for their country. Their style of play has been effective thus far in securing a place in the Euros on top of reaching the final 16. Every player’s commitment to the side has been a truly spectacular experience to watch, including Jonny Evans admitting he cried following their victory against Ukraine. Northern Ireland truly are writing a new chapter in their history.
Written by John Smith
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