Paris (AFP) – Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has challenged his players to make memories that last a lifetime ahead of Tuesday’s final Euro 2016 group game against world champions Germany.
After beating Ukraine 2-0 last week, Northern Ireland need another victory to guarantee a last 16 place, but could also go through from Group C with a draw or even a defeat.
Representing a nation of around 1.8 million inhabitants, they are playing at a major tournament for the first time in 30 years and O’Neill says that the match in Paris should be no cause for trepidation.
“I don’t think there’s any tension. I think this is a special moment,” he told Monday’s pre-match press conference at Parc des Princes.
“If you’d offered us the chance to play the world champions in Paris where a victory could mean that we would possibly win the group, I think we’d have happily taken that.
“This is an opportunity for all of us to enjoy and savour. When we look back on our careers, hopefully it’ll be something that sticks in the memory for a long time.
“To make that even more memorable, we have to obviously try and get a result and get to the next phase of the tournament. It’s as simple as that.”
Prior to Euro 2016, the 1982 and 1986 World Cups were the last major championships to be graced by a Northern Ireland team.
While O’Neill is pleased that Northern Ireland’s return to the global stage has cast light on the achievements of the greats of yesteryear, he says that going forward, the country’s football association faces a challenge to deliver sustainable success.
“The nice thing that this tournament has done for us after 30 years is that for players like Pat Jennings, Norman Whiteside, Jimmy Nicholl, who’s part of the back-room staff, it’s brought their achievements to the fore again,” he said.
– ‘Football brings everyone together’ –
Gesturing to his captain, Steven Davis, who was sitting beside him, he said: “Going forward, we hope it’s not another 30 years before we’re wheeling out Steven Davis and people like that.
“We want to make sure our success is somewhat more regular than that.”
As well as their players, Northern Ireland’s fans have also made an impression in France, aided by the ubiquitous chant sung in honour of Wigan Athletic striker Will Grigg.
The tournament’s opening weekend was marred by violence between England and Russia fans in Marseille, but O’Neill cited bonds between his country’s fans and supporters from cross-border rivals the Republic of Ireland as evidence of a more positive story.
“It’s nice to see that football brings everyone together, particularly from both sides of the border,” he said.
“What’s also been noticeable in this tournament has been the togetherness of a lot of fans, on most occasions.
“In Nice, I hear the relationship between the Polish fans and the Northern Irish fans was extremely good.
“The Will Grigg song has probably helped with that. It’s been adopted by everyone else. Our own fans have been fantastic.
“There’s a whole generation of Northern Ireland fans who’ve never had the opportunity to follow their team to a major tournament. They’ve never had the chance to watch it on television.
“They’ve really embraced the whole tournament.”
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