With Michael O'Neill at the helm Northern Ireland can't be underestimated at Euro 2016

Andy Dillon by Andy Dillon / 08 June 2016, 14:42

The whole of Northern Ireland is at fever pitch as the country prepares to make its debut at the rapidly approaching European Championships...and first major tournament appearance since the 1986 World Cup. The Sun's Andy Dillon (@andydillon70) takes an inside look at both the Green and White Army, and their manager Michael O'Neill, ahead of their opening clash with Poland.

MICHAEL O'NEILL leads a small country with big ideas at Euro 2016.

Northern Ireland's manager finds out on Sunday whether or not his team can give back what he has put in just over four and a half years.

But already the unassuming and open 46 year old has shown he can give his A-list rivals in France a run for their money in terms of man management.

Northern Ireland do not have anywhere near the best players at the tournament, even in the treacherous group which contains world champions Germany.

Yet it does have a man at the helm who knows what his team is good at and how to galvanise and unite a squad of 23 men who are all in uncharted territory at a major finals.

Only this Monday O'Neill invited every single member of the Northern Ireland backroom staff to join him and the team for dinner at their training base 26 miles north of Lyon.

There, he stood up in front of them all and declared all of them, from kit man to press officers, as important as the players themselves.

It was an exercise in lifting up the people behind the scenes to feel important and valued. And to ground any players who may just be getting carried away with events and their plush surroundings.

Unlike England, O'Neill is not spoilt for choice with his players. Most of them knew beforehand they would be in the squad.

But runaway egos are the last thing on O'Neill's mind as he assembles the best possible team with the best possible weapons to achieve success at Euro 2016: to survive the group.

With Poland to play on Sunday, followed by Ukraine and then Germany, the matches get progressively more difficult for O'Neill on the pitch.

But this man seems to have cracked the art of management without the need to refer to text books or his peers - even with a slight physical resemblance to Alex Ferguson.

O'Neill has adopted an intimate touch to his methods of working. He made sure every player had a family photo in their rooms when they checked into the team HQ at Parc de Montchervet.

Two weeks ago, when holed up in the five star Carton House in Kildare for a training camp, he organised a winner-eats-all BBQ for the players to unwind after strenuous workouts.

Three hundred fans were invited to the squad announcement at the Titanic Museum in Belfast on May 28th. And images of the 23 lucky players making the trip were screened on the Giants' Causeway natural landmark - to make the players feel part of the country and vice versa.

If that doesn't make them run through walls for the manager what will?

Unlike England, O'Neill is not blessed with a huge entourage of staff to research training facilities, hotels, or those little extras to make being away from home easier to bare.

He has done much of the donkey work himself, surrounded by a small knot of loyal personnel, eager to win but just as eager to enjoy the tournament as it should be.

No arms-length approach like England.

Northern Ireland's mission statement at Euro 2016 is "Dare To Dream". You suspect Michael O'Neill has to pinch himself every day that he is going to face the smooth, accomplished persona of Joachim Low when his Green And White army take on mighty Germany in Paris on May 21.

It's unlikely the real dream of beating the world champions will be realised - that is a bit too much to ask.

But for O'Neill he belongs in such illustrious company and may do so again on a more regular basis when people realise just how good he is.


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