‘Seeing son on billboard, it hits you’

Northern Ireland have qualified for the European Championship finals for the first time

Northern Ireland have qualified for the European Championship finals for the first time

Northern Ireland bridged a 30-year gap by sealing a place at Euro 2016. Michael O’Neill’s side are the 500-1 outsiders with one of the smallest playing pools in Europe.

But what are the personal tales of triumph behind Northern Ireland qualifying for a first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup?

Who is the midfielder who was working on a building site as recently as 2011? Why was a journalist from Poland left puzzled by one of O’Neill’s players? How does a father react when he sees a billboard of his son when he is driving?

BBC Sport takes a look behind the scenes of the Northern Ireland camp.

Evans brothers are history boys


Corry and Jonny Evans came through the youth ranks at Manchester United

Jonny and Corry Evans will be the first brothers to play for Northern Ireland at a major finals – and parents Jackie and Dawn, along with sister Katie will be there in supporting roles.

The brothers came through the youth ranks at Manchester United and will be central to O’Neill’s plans to cause an upset in France.

Defender Jonny, 28, is now at West Bromwich Albion, while 25-year-old Corry is a midfielder with Blackburn Rovers.

Dad Jackie was on the books at Chelsea as a youngster.

“The game against Greece [when Northern Ireland qualified for Euro 2016] was one of the nicest feelings I have ever had in football.

“Even now we pinch ourselves. The country is buzzing, and when you are driving down the road and you see a billboard of your son, it hits you, it’s a special time.”

Meanwhile, Katie is still at school, but she is not going to let that stop her cheering her brothers on.

After the opening Group C match against Poland in Nice, she will return to England – the family moved to Manchester when Jonny joined United – to sit an exam before flying back out for the Ukraine match in Lyon.

Fleetwood’s poster boy


Conor McLaughlin’s long flight paid off and now he is the pride of Fleetwood Town fans – young and old

Just two years ago, Conor McLaughlin was playing in League Two, virtually unheard of outside Fleetwood. Now he is a key man for a team at Euro 2016.

And O’Neill admits McLaughlin’s significant international break in June 2014 was not down to any great managerial insight.

“We were on a tour of South America and there were a number of players not available,” he recalls.

“Conor played in the League Two play-off final [when Fleetwood beat Burton 1-0] and the next day flew to Montevideo – 18 hours on his own – to join up with us.

“He was only there to be part of the squad, but for our second game in Chile, Chris Baird was ill. We played Conor and he has never been out of the team since.”

McLaughlin, whose brother Ryan is at Liverpool, joined Fleetwood in 2012 and was already an international having made his debut the previous year.

Despite being a regular in the qualifying campaign, the 24-year-old’s presence at the tournament is turning heads.

O’Neill smiles as he tells the story about being interviewed by a Polish journalist who said, with a puzzled look: “But your team has a player from Fleetwood?”

From retirement to Euro 2016


Now and then: Aaron Hughes made his NI debut against Slovakia on 28 March 1998

Northern Ireland’s players have much to thank O’Neill for but experienced defender Aaron Hughes is especially grateful.

On becoming Northern Ireland boss, O’Neill made it his mission to coax the then-Fulham player out of international retirement.

Mission accomplished, and Hughes, who made his debut under Lawrie McMenemy in March 1998 against Slovakia, has become only the second Northern Ireland player to reach 100 caps.

Former Tottenham and Arsenal keeper Pat Jennings reached 119 caps at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

“At one point I never thought I’d reach that milestone,” said Hughes, 36, from Cookstown, who spent last season playing in Australia for Melbourne City.

“But when Michael O’Neill came in, he said things which made me think about it.

“Damien Duff was at Fulham at the time and he had just reached his 100 caps with the Republic. I thought that would be quite something.”

Hughes, whose previous clubs include Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Fulham, announced he was ending his international career in September 2011 on 79 caps.

But three months later Michael O’Neill got the Northern Ireland job and, by February, Hughes was back in the fold.

A fairytale from Dallas


Not that long ago, Stuart Dallas was working on a building site and playing for Coagh United

Northern Ireland midfielder Stuart Dallas does not forget his humble beginnings. In 2011 he was working on a building site. Now he is getting ready for Euro 2016.

From little Coagh United of Northern Ireland’s Amateur League, to Irish Premiership side Crusaders, Brentford and currently Leeds. Add in a trip to Euro 2016, and the 25-year-old from County Tyrone is pinching himself.

He actually made his NI debut in 2011 under Nigel Worthington, but did not play again until a 2015 friendly against Scotland.

“When you look at where I was five years ago, it is incredible. I was standing on a building site at seven in the morning, freezing cold,” said Dallas, who like nearly all Irish League players held down a full-time job.

“If you had told me then I would be playing at Euro 2016, I would have said you were mad.

“It makes me appreciate life more because I have come from a working background with a normal job.”

Life could hardly get any better now for Dallas. On Friday, he broke away from NI’s tournament preparations to get married to Juneve in County Monaghan.

Famous faces in the crowd


Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton saw Northern Ireland qualify by beating Greece in Belfast in October 2015

Northern Ireland will have two sporting superstars cheering them on at the Euros – four-time golf major winner Rory McIlroy and boxing champion Carl Frampton.

Both have been to matches at Windsor Park during the qualifying campaign and have met up with the squad.

After winning the Irish Open in May, McIlroy headed to the squad’s training base at Carton House to make presentations to some of these who had got Northern Ireland to France.

One was Oliver Norwood in recognition of the Reading player having started all 10 games in Group F.


Northern Ireland fans will be flocking in their thousands to the finals in France

Number’s up for NI supporters

It is thought more than 40,000 fans will be travelling to France to support Northern Ireland.

How times have changed. In 1999 only 11,804 turned out at Windsor Park – nearly 3,000 less than the ground’s capacity at the time – to watch NI play world champions France.

“It is amazing how things we have moved on,” says Irish FA president Jim Shaw.

“We have more than 15,000 tickets sold for the game against Ukraine. We couldn’t get that number into our own Windsor Park ground.

“It shows the amount of support we are taking to France.”


Jim Shaw says more Northern Ireland fans will watch the game against Ukraine in Lyon on 16 June than can fit into Windsor Park

Shaw is enthusiastic about the new tournament format, especially the fact that 16 teams will progress from the group stages.

“We know the last match against Germany will have something riding on it,” said the IFA chief.

“To go to Paris knowing you were already out would have been awful. Remember, nobody gave us a chance of qualifying, but we are there.”

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