Commitment and heart pushing O'Neill's 2016 football class to triumph

'You can ask for different things as a manager,' said O'Neill, 'but when you get a performance like that, pure commitment and heart, there's nothing more you can ask.' Photograph:( Getty )

Reuters Lyon Jun 17, 2016, 10.03 AM (IST)
Michael O'Neill's class of 2016 may not quite possess the flair of their celebrated Northern Ireland predecessors of 1982 but how many teams in this European Championship can match their heart and commitment?

That seemed like a fair question after O'Neill's side had ended their 34-year wait for a major tournament victory with a 2-0 win over Ukraine that showcased their remarkable spirit.

"You can ask for different things as a manager," said O'Neill, "but when you get a performance like that, pure commitment and heart, there's nothing more you can ask."

While his side may not be able to match their Euro 2016 opponents for class, they demonstrated once more that they are masters of concealing weaknesses and maximising their strengths.

Goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn against Ukraine ended the long famine that stretched back to the 1982 World Cup, when Gerry Armstrong's low finish famously downed hosts Spain.

O'Neill was already on the verge of Messianic status after guiding the Irish to their first major tournament in 30 years and deserved all the praise for again getting things right with a bold team selection on Thursday.

He dropped talismanic striker Kyle Lafferty after the opening defeat by Poland, turning instead to the inexperienced Conor Washington, who repaid his coach with tireless chasing and pressurising of the Ukrainian defenders.

That is the Northern Ireland hallmark. O'Neill's side may not have the sheen of the class of '82, who boasted luminaries like Martin O'Neill (the Ireland coach here), Pat Jennings, Norman Whiteside, Sammy McIlroy and Armstrong in their ranks, yet excellent organisation and meticulous training ground work has made them tough opposition for anybody. For instance, their set-piece routine when McAuley rose to meet Olivier Norwood's free kick was simple but very effective.

"We like to have something up our sleeve," smiled a justifiably satisfied O'Neill.

He also has a team which appears to be driven by proving a point to non-believers.

"A few people didn't give us a chance of getting a point when the draw was made," McAuley told journalists. "But that's what Northern Ireland are all about -- proving people wrong."

They also became the first British side to keep a clean sheet at this tournament after their relentless harrying and defensive discipline stymied Ukraine.

"We've talked about leaving a legacy from this tournament," said McAuley. "Football's a romantic game, and sometimes the underdogs come through."

The class of '82 would recognise that better than anybody. "Bring on Germany!" urged 1982 hero Whiteside, now a television pundit. He is not the only Northern Irishman who fancies that O'Neill's side are not finished with writing history quite yet.