Michael O’Neill’s men ready but Germany stand in their way

The Northern Ireland squad, including Aberdeens Niall McGinn, far right, are put through their paces ahead of tomorrows showdown. Picture: PA
The Northern Ireland squad, including Aberdeens Niall McGinn, far right, are put through their paces ahead of tomorrows showdown. Picture: PA
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Like the sixth episode of Fawlty Towers, yesterday at Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 training base could be summed up with a two-word title: The Germans.

How do you stop them, who do you most fear? Which Germany player do you most admire? Even, from a German journalist, how should Germany prepare for Northern Ireland? What should the Germans fear, if anything?

We’re good at running around and have lots of energy. But obviously they won’t be worrying about us too much. Maybe that is the best thing for us

Jamie Ward

Jamie Ward, the Northern Ireland forward, pondered that one for a few moments. “Well, we do a lot of running about,” he said, not altogether promisingly.

“They will probably be watching us and thinking we have a lot of energy, that’s what we are good at – we’re good at running around and causing problems for other teams. Obviously they won’t be worrying about us too much. Maybe that is the best thing for us.”

As regards stopping the Germans, where do you start? “We will find summat,” promised the Birmingham-born Ward, one of five players brought into the team for last Thursday’s 2-0 win over Ukraine, a result that re-­ignited Northern Ireland’s prospects of reaching the last 16. But one team stand in their way. The Germans. Michael O’Neill’s team could qualify with just three points but it seems unlikely.

Indeed, Northern Ireland’s training session in Saint-Georges-de-Reneins yesterday could potentially be their last here unless they can secure a positive result 
tomorrow night at Parc des Princes against the world champions.

Corry Evans was next to be handed the interview baton. Conversation quickly turned to the Germans, of course. But first he had to explain his role in a substitution saga that saw Stuart Dallas booked towards the end against Ukraine.

It looked as if Evans was refusing to come off despite his number being held up. Unsurprisingly, the referee thought these touchline antics was an elaborate ­routine to waste time.

“I thought I might get asked about that,” he said. “We had one sub left and my number went up. As I was walking off a couple of the lads were shouting at me that Stuart was struggling [with a knock]. I was trying to say to the bench, don’t take me off, take Stuart off as he’s struggling. But it was so loud on the pitch it was all getting lost and increasing the confusion. I wasn’t refusing to come off or anything.”

Referee Pavel Kralovec added time on at the end, as many as six minutes of it. But it was not Ukraine who took advantage of this, as many feared would happen. Rather, Northern Ireland seized the chance to double their lead – and Niall McGinn’s goal could prove valuable in the final analysis.

“If we hadn’t had got the six minutes added time then Niall would not have scored,” said Evans, who pointed out that Dallas was also the one whose saved shot led to the goal from the Aberdeen winger.

Goal difference could yet be a factor in qualifying for the knock-out stage, which would pour another £2 million into Irish Football Association coffers. What the Scottish Football Association would do for such a mid-summer windfall. A win is worth nearly £1 million, which Northern Ireland now already have in the bank. They received £6 million for qualifying.

Northern Ireland already know they cannot finish bottom of their group but they need to finish one of four best third-placed teams in order to reach the last 16; if, indeed, third is where they finish and not any higher.

So what about these Germans? How can Northern Ireland obtain the point that will almost certainly see them qualify for the next stage – or the win that would secure second spot in Group C and earn them another £1 million?

Is the prospect of getting three points against the world champions realistic, particularly given Germany’s own determination to finish group winners? Or should O’Neill set the team up to be hard to beat?

“It’s a difficult one,” admitted Evans. “I think we have to try and get a result; we don’t want to be relying on other teams and wait for their results. We have to try and take the game to the Germans, like we did against Ukraine, and get a positive result.”

No-one wants to go home yet and Owen Coyle, his new manager at Blackburn, has contacted Evans to tell him to forget about pre-season training for the time being, just focus on Northern Ireland.

“Owen gave me a call last week to introduce himself really over the phone,” said Evans. “He said he would have a chat in due course depending on how far we go in the tournament, and decide when I will be back in.”

But for the time being in this pleasant, quiet corner of the Rhone-Alpes region, nothing else matters save for finding a way of coping with the threat posed by the world champions. It’s enough to be getting on with.