No country had ever won their European Championship qualifying group from pot five, but Northern Ireland did just that to reach their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
It was an achievement that came totally out of the blue (no stars, no real form going into qualification) but Michael O’Neill and his players surprised everyone.
Granted, their group wasn’t the most challenging and the total capitulation of top seeds Greece certainly helped. But Northern Ireland showed impressive consistency to not only beat the Euro 2004 champions home and away, but also win in Hungary and lose only once, in Romania.
Northern Ireland have played in three World Cups – you’ll be seeing a lot of Gerry Armstrong’s winning goal in 1982 against hosts Spain this summer – but this is their first appearance in the final stages of the European Championship.
Little will be expected of them as the joint-outsiders with Albania and a group featuring Germany, Poland and Ukraine will not be easy. However, they are approaching the tournament on the longest unbeaten run in their history, now stretching to 10 matches – although they still have to negotiate friendlies against Belarus and Slovakia before their Euro 2016 quest kicks off against Poland in Nice.
The loss of Chris Brunt to a cruciate knee ligament injury is something they could have done without, but fellow experienced pros Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird, Jonny Evans and Steven Davis remain to guide the squad’s younger players.
QPR’s 23-year-old forward Conor Washington is pushing for a place after netting the winner in the March friendly over Slovenia and there’s a lower-league presence in the squad, too, with League One quartet Shane Ferguson, Conor McLaughlin, Luke McCullough and Michael Smith joined by understudy goalkeeper Roy Carroll, once of Manchester United, who is in League Two with Notts County.
Lesson from qualifying
Don’t underestimate them. Plenty of supposedly superior opponents have made that mistake in recent months and lived to regret it.
This team is far greater than the sum of its parts – they wouldn’t have got this far without real unity and determination to defy the odds. The team’s focus is impressive, too, as they trailed only twice in qualifying, for all of five and 15 minutes.
None of Northern Ireland’s players have taken part in a major tournament before. Given the level at which many of them perform with their club sides, a good proportion have never come up against opponents of this calibre, either.
Most likely to...
Cause lasting damage to the stadiums of France, through sheer bouncy enthusiasm. The Green and White Army got so excited during the recent campaign that one of the stands at Belfast’s Windsor Park started sinking and had to be knocked down. OK, it might not have been entirely their fault...
Least likely to...
Keep the thank you speech brief if they win a game. Michael O’Neill was due to say only a few words when he won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year’s coaching award in 2015, before launching into an epic monologue thanking pretty much every Northern Irishman who has ever lived. The BBC’s host, Gary Lineker, eventually had to step in when O’Neill veered off into his favourite Patrick Kielty jokes and started to review Liam Neeson’s performances in all three Taken films.
What they hope will happen
That they can continue their qualifying theme and make a surprise surge for the last 16 as a best third-placed team. At the very least, they’ll be hoping to pull off one shock result in the group stage. Let the delirious bouncing commence.
What will happen
Looking at the quality of opposition, a brave group-stage exit is on the cards. Just getting this far was a monumental achievement.
Key player – Kyle Lafferty
“He’s an out-of-control womaniser.” So said Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini after Lafferty’s spell in Italy, in a career that has also taken him to Scotland, Switzerland and Turkey. But while his club career is nomadic, he has found a home at international level, scoring seven times in qualifying.
Manager – Michael O’Neill
O’Neill wasn’t the big name some fans wanted when he was appointed in 2011 after success with Shamrock Rovers and he lost his first two games 3-0 and 6-0 – but he has made huge strides since then.
Q&A – Michael McGovern
It looks like you’re going to be first-choice No.1 at the Euros. What will that mean to you?
It would mean the world. The last year has been a whirlwind because it was only March  when I got my second cap. It had been five years since my first, and I wasn’t sure the second one was going to come, but I’ve played nine times in the last year. The Greece game, when we qualified, was just unbelievable – the highlight of my career. We won 3-1 and for the last 10 minutes we knew we’d done it. That was surreal. I just tried to soak up all of the celebrations. I can’t wait to get to France now. I’ve got 12 people from my family travelling – I’m just trying to get tickets for them all!
Did you really expect to qualify for this tournament?
At the start of qualifying our aim was to make the playoffs, so to top the group was just a magnificent achievement. Hopefully we can get through the group in France now – that’s the aim. We want to do the best we can. We’re 10 games unbeaten, which is a record for Northern Ireland, and having winning momentum is a huge part of football.
You’ve been drawn against Germany, Poland and Ukraine. How tough will that be?
We were in the final pot, so it was always going to be difficult. But we’ve got Germany last, so if we could get a result in the first game against Poland it would really set us up for the Ukraine match. Potentially, four points might get you through to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams. People probably won’t give us much of a chance, but being underdogs is a nice position to be in.
How important has manager Michael O’Neill been?
We needed a strong manager to get results because we don’t have star players like Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart. In World Cup qualifying our results weren’t great, but we were unfortunate at times, so I’m glad the manager is getting the results to go with his hard work now. He has been brilliant.
Fixtures and results
June 12, Poland. Nice, midnight.
June 16, Ukraine. Lyon, midnight.
June 21, Germany. Paris, midnight.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group F winners
vs Hungary (A) 2-1
vs Faroe Islands (H) 2-0
vs Greece (A) 2-0
vs Romania (A) 0-2
vs Finland (H) 2-1
vs Romania (H) 0-0
vs Faroe Islands (A) 3-1
vs Hungary (H) 1-1
vs Greece (H) 3-1
vs Finland (A) 1-1
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
Words and interview Chris Flanagan
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