- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2015

Without an appearance at a major tournament since 1986, Northern Ireland sensed a real chance to end its long wait after being drawn in a qualifying group lacking major names and featuring a fading Greece as top seed.

The Northern Irish took full advantage, finishing top of the group and qualifying with a game to spare in front of its most high-profile supporter - golfer Rory McIlroy. It was the first time that a fifth seed has topped a European Championship qualifying group.

It will be the first-ever European Championship for a team that makes up for its dearth of star quality with a relentless work rate and good organization under coach Michael O’Neill, who needed 10 games to register his first win after taking charge in 2011 but has impressed ever since.

Northern Ireland’s stay in France may be brief - the country is among the biggest underdogs of the tournament. But the side could prove hard to break down, and expect imposing striker Kyle Lafferty to cause defenses some problems.

The country’s most famous footballer, Manchester United great George Best, never got to play in an international tournament and still has an airport named after him in Belfast, the capital city.

It’s time for another Northern Irish player to make a name for himself, and he won’t have a better stage to do it.

Here is a look at Northern Ireland’s top three players and its coach, Michael O’Neill:


KYLE LAFFERTY - Barely plays for Norwich, his club in the English Premier League, but transforms into a world-beater when he puts on the green-and-white jersey of his country. Seven goals in nine games made the rangy and aggressive striker one of the top scorers in qualifying. Good in the air and has a taste for scoring late goals.


STEVEN DAVIS - One of the few players to feature regularly in the Premier League, the Southampton midfielder is the captain, an excellent passer and chips in with key goals.


JONNY EVANS - Anyone with experience of playing for many seasons at Manchester United is welcomed by a country as short of big names as Northern Ireland. Evans was highly rated by former United manager Alex Ferguson because of his reading of the game and tackling at center back, and will need to stand tall in defense with his team expected to come under intense pressure every game.


COACH: MICHAEL O’NEILL - Arrived as a low-key appointment in 2011 but has impressed with his vision of inclusivity, modernization and tactics. He has fostered an excellent team spirit and improved standards in terms of training conditions and logistical arrangements. Players want to play for the diligent O’Neill and the results show it.

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