Why ALLY McKEN­ZIE is start­ing to be­lieve North­ern Ire­land could qual­ify for a ma­jor tour­na­ment

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

North­ern Ire­land’s Euro chal­lenge

FIVE years be­fore my birth was the last time North­ern Ire­land were in a ma­jor tour­na­ment (1986) and since then there hasn’t been much to cel­e­brate.

Well, just that win against Eng­land, that victory against Spain and count­less other one-off games that have come and gone down the years, fill­ing the void and mo­men­tar­ily dis­guis­ing the fact that we just aren’t good enough to min­gle with the world’s best in ma­jor tour­na­ments.

At the be­gin­ning of the new Euro 2016 qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign, there was faint talk, whis­pers be­hind closed doors that with third place guar­an­tee­ing a play-off, there might just be a chance of qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

But even the most op­ti­mistic among us couldn’t pos­si­bly let our­selves dream. The pes­simist in us saw a team be­ing led into the new cam­paign by a manager (Michael O’Neill) with a very low win per­cent­age and a team of good, but not great, play­ers, very few of which came from the Pre­mier League, the rest mostly jour­ney­men in the Cham­pi­onship, League One and Scot­tish Pre­mier League.

It’s funny what a cou­ple of good re­sults early in a cam­paign can do. Com­ing from be­hind to win away at Hun­gary (2-1), a home victory against the Faroe Is­lands (2-0), a win in Greece (2-0) and we are wait­ing for the self-de­struct but­ton to be slammed and for this whole dream to im­plode. In the af­ter­math of the Ro­ma­nia de­feat (2-0), it threat­ened to hap­pen.

How­ever, there was a mo­ment dur­ing the home win against Fin­land (2-1) at the end of March when our men­tal maths were on par with Carol Vor­der­man’s, dar­ing to do the sums, adding the hy­po­thet­i­cal points to­gether from games to come, the dream of qual­i­fi­ca­tion be­com­ing a re­al­ity.

Sup­port­ing a team that glo­ri­ously un­der­achieves, one strug­gles to be truly op­ti­mistic. We re­mained grounded.

And then Kyle Laf­ferty banged in his sec­ond and news crept in of Greece and Hun­gary’s draw (0-0) and we were google trans­lat­ing ‘A camper­van for two weeks in France please’.

Sud­denly the taste of suc­cess, like a sip from our first ever pint of beer, is un­fa­mil­iar but some­thing we know we will gladly get used to.

At the time of writ­ing, the Euro Qual­i­fiers have reached the half­way point and while Eng- land have all but booked their ferry across to France, the rest of the home na­tions are in healthy but not rock-solid po­si­tions.

Wales, led by the tal­is­manic Bale, look like they could take on the best on their day while Scot­land and the Repub­lic of Ire­land are surely go­ing to cancel the other out in a bid for third place be­hind Ger­many and Poland.

The teams are in their health­i­est po­si­tions dur­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion for years but we are all afraid to cel­e­brate the fact.

And that’s the thing about be­ing a foot­ball sup­porter – we are a su­per­sti­tious bunch who be­lieve that by speak­ing out loud, we are putting the blink on our team.We don’t let our­selves dream big for fear of crash­ing back to earth with an away de­feat to the Faroe Is­lands.

But isn’t the beauty of the beau­ti­ful game found in the small shards of hope that we cling on to, the be­lief that we’ll see our team in a ma­jor tour­na­ment in our life­time?

We aren’t ask­ing for a big fan­fare, a royal pro­ces­sion or even our own birth­day cake, just an in­vi­ta­tion to the party. And by the way, it’s ‘Un camp­ing-car pen­dant deux se­maines en France se il vous plaît’. I hope so, any­way...

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