O’Neill happy with draw as Northern Ireland avoid Euro big guns

Euro draw
Euro draw

The footballing gods appeared to smiling down on Michael O’Neill as Sunday’s Euro 2016 qualifying draw was made.

O’Neill cut a relaxed figure as Northern Ireland’s fate was played out in Nice.

Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands will stand between O’Neill and a coveted spot in the Euro 2016 finals.

The group makes for encouraging reading on paper - especially as Northern Ireland managed to avoid heavyweights Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.

But despite the favourable draw, O’Neill is under no illusions ahead of the next qualifying campaign.

“We have to be relatively pleased with the draw and I think it is a group where we can be competitive and take points,” he said.

“We’re not underestimating how difficult it will be to qualify for the finals in France, but the pool could have been a lot more difficult and third place guaranteeing a play-off is a big incentive.

“We have avoided being fifth seeds in the group containing Germany, Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, so we know it could have been a tougher outcome.

“We have to be happy, but we know other nations in the pool like Greece, Hungary and Romania will also be happy. We’re under no illusions how challenging it will be.”

UEFA’S new computerised fixture scheduling - which will see Northern Ireland play its first-ever Sunday international when Finland visit Windsor Park on March 29 next year - has produced a tricky opening set of fixtures for O’Neill.

Northern Ireland will start their campaign away to Hungary on September 7, before facing bottom seeds Faroe Islands and then a trip to Greece during October’s international break.

But with the 2016 tournament set to include 24 teams - eight more than have featured at the past five Euro Championships - Northern Ireland stand a fighting chance of reaching a first major finals since 1986.

“The key thing for us is to get points on the board early and in the bank so we are in the mix from the off,” O’Neill added.

“It is obviously going to be a tough start, especially those two away games against Hungary and Greece. But we can hopefully get something from those games which will set us up nicely for the remainder of the campaign.

“We also have to make sure we look after our home games. We need to win a lot more games at Windsor Park, as that can make or break a campaign for you.

“We didn’t do that in the last campaign and we dropped home points to the likes of Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

“We can’t afford to drop home points in this campaign if we are to harbour hopes of making an impact and trying to finish in the top three.

“We’ve seen how difficult it is to win at this level. Hungary and Romania will be looking at this group and they’ll probably be delighted.

“They’ll be thinking ‘if we can finish above N Ireland and Finland, we’re guaranteed at least a play-off spot’.”

Meanwhile, former Northern Ireland striker Iain Dowie believes O’Neill should be happy with Sunday’s draw.

“Greece are top seeds and we have to be wary of Romania and Hungary, but I do believe it is a group we care capable of qualifying from,” Dowie said.