EURO 2016

O'Neill lauds team's heart

Gareth McAuley (middle) of Northern Ireland scoring the opening goal in the 2-0 win against Ukraine on Thursday. "We've got a big game to look forward to in Paris," he said of the looming clash against Germany.
Gareth McAuley (middle) of Northern Ireland scoring the opening goal in the 2-0 win against Ukraine on Thursday. "We've got a big game to look forward to in Paris," he said of the looming clash against Germany.PHOTO: REUTERS

LYON • The current Northern Ireland side may not quite possess the flair of their celebrated predecessors of 1982, but according to their coach Michael O'Neill, few Euro 2016 teams can match their heart and commitment.

His side ended their 34-year wait for a victory in a major football tournament with a 2-0 win over Ukraine on Thursday, and he gushed: "You can ask for different things as a manager, but when you get a performance like that, pure commitment and heart, there's nothing more you can ask."

Goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn ended the long famine that stretched back to the 1982 World Cup, when Gerry Armstrong's low finish famously downed hosts Spain.

O'Neill went with a bold team selection against Ukraine, dropping talismanic striker Kyle Lafferty after the opening 1-0 defeat by Poland, and turning instead to the inexperienced Conor Washington, who repaid his coach with tireless chasing and pressuring of the Ukrainian defenders.

The win bore all of Northern Ireland's hallmarks - excellent organisation and meticulous training ground work. For instance, their set-piece routine when McAuley rose to meet Olivier Norwood's free kick was simple but very effective.

"We like to have something up our sleeve," said O'Neill.

He also has a team who appear to be determined to prove a point to non-believers.

"We've talked about leaving a legacy from this tournament," said McAuley. "Nobody has given us a chance. Lots of people said we wouldn't get a point."

The class of '82 would recognise that better than anybody.

"Bring on Germany!" urged 1982 hero Norman Whiteside, now a television pundit.

Said McAuley: "It's going to be a tough, tough game, but football is a romantic game and sometimes the underdogs come through.

"We won't be fancied, but we will give it our all."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'O'Neill lauds team's heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe