There is more reason than ever to be excited about the traditional feast of football which comes around every two years in the summertime – Northern Ireland are involved.
After 30 years in the doldrums of failed qualification for both the World Cup and European Championships – albeit with a couple of notable highlights along the road – ‘our wee country’ will take part in Euro 2016 which kicked off last night.
It is the first time Northern Ireland has qualified for the European Championships and the first time they are playing in a major competition since back-to-back World Cup final appearances in 1982 and 1986.
The excitement has been building all week as Northern Ireland prepare to face Poland in their opening Group C game in Nice tomorrow, before facing Ukraine and the mighty Germans, current World champions.
It has been a remarkable journey for O’Neill and his squad – some of whom were not even born when Gerry Armstrong was scoring the winning goal against Spain in 1982 or in 1986 when Billy Bingham led the country to their second World Cup finals in Mexico.
Flashback to four years ago when others on the continent were preparing for Euro 2012 – Northern Ireland conceded six goals to Holland in a friendly. It was O’Neill’s second game in charge. That was their sixth consecutive loss and there would be just one more victory in the 16 games that came before the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
This summer Northern Ireland go into the finals with the best unbeaten record (12 matches) of any of the other 23 countries – the Dutch have not even qualified!
There is genuine belief the boys in green can produce something special in France – everyone is holding their breath for tomorrow’s opener when a draw or a win over the Poles will take the belief to even greater heights ahead of Ukraine on Thursday.
The Germans had better be ready!