Northern Ireland & Wales: Two teams, two ways, one result.

When UEFA announced that they would be expanding Euro 2016 to 24 teams, it provided the home nations – with the exception of England – an unprecedented opportunity to get themselves on the big stage. For those associated with Northern Ireland and Wales it was an opportunity filled with hope rather than expectation. The two nations had limited pedigree in the footballing world with just four major championship appearances between them, so whilst Euro 2016 provided a good opportunity, it was by no means a certainty. Despite this, 9 games and 13 months after qualifying began, both nations have qualified for their first ever European Championships and supporters are now planning their holidays to France for the summer of 2016.

Whilst the increase to 24 nations made the path easier, both Wales and Northern Ireland would have been in a good position to qualify for a 16 team tournament, either as group winners or as one of the best runner-ups. The worst case scenario for both sides would have been a play-off tie against another second place nation, something that neither has been used to in recent years and underlines the high levels of performance both have produced during qualifying.

To put things into perspective, Neville Southall, Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs, John Charles, Gary Speed, George Best, Gerry Armstrong, Norman Whiteside and Pat Jennings are just some of the names that have failed to reach such heights. It means Jazz Richards, Hal Robson-Kanu, Chris Gunter, Craig Cathcart, Stuart Dallas and Conor McLaughlin really are breaking new, unchartered territory and becoming national heroes in the process.

So how have Michael O’Neill and Chris Coleman managed to get their countries among the European elite?

As is always the case when less fancied teams do well, team spirit has been paramount in their recent success. For Northern Ireland, the ethos should have been easy to buy into with the squad featuring players from League 1 and League 2 and the stand out names being West Brom trio Chris Brunt, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley.

For Wales, the situation is completely different with Gareth Bale undoubtedly the star of the show and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey another world class performer. Around those two though are a raft of Premier League and Championship performers who fit the Northern Irish bill of solid but unspectacular players. However, Bale has bought into the team spirit and led by example with a string of tireless displays. This has inspired the rest of the Welsh team to greater heights as they see how much qualification means to their main performer.

Despite having one of the most revered attackers in the world in their line-up, Wales’ qualification has been based on a fantastic defensive record.  Only four teams have conceded less goals than Ashley Williams and co and prior to their defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Coleman’s new look back five had conceded just two goals in eight games, including two shut-outs against much fancied Belgium. Goals might win games but six clean sheets means six games without defeat.

On the other hand, the Welsh have struggled for goals with just 9 goals in their 9 qualifying games, 8 of which have featured Bale – 6 goals and 2 assists. Nobody else has scored more than 1. As the team have stuttered over the line in their final two qualifiers, goal scoring has been the issue with no goals against Israel or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In comparison, Northern Ireland have played with a more attacking outlook, scoring nearly double the number of goals of any other Group F side. Kyle Lafferty has been in scintillating form with 7 goals in 8 appearances, including the winner in the opening fixture away to Hungary, a result that created the belief amongst the team. However, when Lafferty was suspended against Greece, others stepped up to the plate with captain Steven Davis scoring a brace and stand-in striker Josh Magennis also getting himself on the scoresheet. It proved what everyone knew about Northern Ireland; their success has been built on the performances of the whole squad with no individual being relied upon.

It was a good barometer for O’Neill’s men though, as with 8 months until the tournament gets underway, form and fitness may dictate changes in team selection. Greece may be languishing at the bottom of Northern Ireland’s group but the fixture still presented a good test for some squad players; a test which they passed with flying colours.

The Greeks were top seeds when the qualifying draw was made so their capitulation has helped Northern Ireland’s cause. Additionally, Romania, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands presented a fantastic opportunity for Northern Ireland to qualify, with no major European nation to overcome. Meanwhile, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland were pitted with each other as well as Germany and Poland whilst the Netherlands are struggling in a group that also contains teams with finals pedigree in Cezch Republic and Turkey and an Iceland team that only failed to make the World Cup due to a 2-0 play-off defeat to Croatia. It means Northern Ireland will need to prove themselves against some more established nations but part one has been successfully negotiated.

Wales have proved they can beat by the best by taking four points off Belgium but will be extremely fearful of an injury to Bale as without him their attack looks toothless. Hal Robson-Kanu has done a good job for the team in qualifying but relying on him, Sam Vokes and Simon Church to score against the continent’s best defences would be a cause for concern.

However, not many people expected either to be at Euro 2016, certainly not through automatic qualification, so rather than worry about some shortcomings, let’s just celebrate the current success and look forward to a summer tournament that features more than just England from these shores.

Featured image by David Maginnis.

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