For the first time since 1986, a Northern Ireland manager was naming a squad of players to compete in the finals of a major tournament. The fact he did so in Belfast’s Titanic centre might have seemed slightly less appropriate on the eve of such a hazardous, if exciting, adventure.
As had already been deduced given their absence from Friday’s 3-0 friendly win over Belarus, Liam Boyce and Billy Mckay are among those missing out on Euro 2016, where Northern Ireland play Poland, Ukraine and Germany. Daniel Lafferty, Ben Reeves and Michael Smith have also dropped out of the original 28-man squad.
When you haven’t qualified for a major finals for 30 years, and when you have qualified for only three major finals ever, it’s understandable if the Irish FA want to make a song and dance of confirming those included.
“To think, the Spanish just tweeted their squad out,” exclaimed an excitable Colin Murray, the Northern Irish television and radio presenter, in front of more than several hundred invited supporters.
A lot was happening on the quayside, including a DeLorean festival, 35 years after the first car rolled out of a Belfast factory.
But despite the hullabaloo inside the Titanic Centre – and it was always well pitched – nothing seems to faze O’Neill, an impressive young manager. He quickly left his players to soak up the applause from the Windsor Park pitch on Friday night, when 14,000 Northern Irish fans waved their heroes off.
The gleeful farewell recalled the fervour greeting Ally MacLeod’s Scotland team during an ill-fated send-off at Hampden Park prior to the 1978 World Cup finals. But at least Northern Ireland had just played a game – one they won handsomely v Belarus.
The achievements are now so numerous to become humdrum, and include the extension of a record unbeaten run to 12 games. It is also the first time Northern Ireland have scored in eight consecutive games since the mid 1960s.
“You don’t need to be Poirot to know who has been left out,” said O’Neill after Friday night’s 3-0 win, when there was no sign of Mckay and Boyce, among others.
Boyce gave O’Neill the biggest headache. The Ross County striker was displaced by man of the moment Will Grigg, whose goal spurt for Wigan came at the right time – as has a signature song that has since been adapted to fit on- form players across the land.
Some might say Boyce has been unlucky, perhaps even badly served by the terrace phenomenon that means Grigg’s profile has rocketed. But O’Neill noted Boyce took the news as well as could be expected, and agreed his performances, hindered by a hand injury, meant he was always struggling to make the 23.
Scorer of 17 goals before New Year, Boyce scored only three afterwards. Grigg, meanwhile, really has been on fire – he has scored 21 of his 29 goals this season since the turn of the year.
He also picked a good time to score his first goal for his country on Friday night, sparking yet another frantic rendition of “Will Grigg’s on Fire”, to the tune of the 90s disco classic Freed from Desire by Gala.
While the decision had already been made, it was still a timely strike as Grigg seeks to force his way into the starting XI after knocking on the door for so long. O’Neill picked him for the second squad of his tenure four years ago and yet Friday night was only his eighth cap.
“First of all Liam is a good lad, he is a quiet lad,” explained O’Neill. “He said he could not really have any complains. He had a really good first half to the season. Unfortunately in the second part of the season he just did not get to the levels that he had done in the early part of the season, he had a hand injury that affected him.”
“I saw him on a number of occasions,” added O’Neill. “I watched him in the League Cup final v Hibs and although they won that day he did not have one of his best games, by his own admission. That’s the kind of game where you really want players to step up.”
Any of the five players in total who dropped out could still be called up in the event of injury, right up to the first game, v Poland in Nice two weeks tonight. “They have a responsibility to maintain their fitness; but they are disappointed and probably want to get away from football for a little bit,” said O’Neill.
Despite Boyce and Mckay dropping out, there are still five players in O’Neill’s squad who were playing in Scotland at the end of last season: Kilmarnock striker Josh Magennis, Lee Hodson, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Rugby Park from MK Dons, Aberdeen’s Niall McGinn, Hamilton Accies goalkeeper Michael McGovern and St Johnstone keeper Alan Mannus.