There’s only one team in this year’s tournament who can boast that they have a song about one of their players in the charts; Will Grigg’s fantastic season has forever embedded him in the hearts of football fans all over Britain. This is especially seen in the Northern Irish who come into the tournament with cautious but rational optimism.

After a brilliant qualifying campaign, in which they topped their group with some ease despite only being seeded in pot 5 for the draw. Although it was not a tough group, they were pitted against Hungary, Greece, Finland, Faroe Islands and shockingly Romania as top seeds. Northern Ireland took advantage of that, they lost only one game throughout the campaign and played some impressive football.

When that is added to the fact that Northern Ireland are on a 12 match unbeaten run coming into the Euros, there is no doubt that they deserve their place in France this summer. Despite that, Northern Ireland fans must not become overly optimistic as there is still a huge challenge ahead of them if they wish to progress in the tournament.

Michael O’Neill has created a fantastic set-up and has got many players who have never truly performed at a domestic level playing brilliantly for their country. Players such as Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans, who have disappointed or been deprived of playing time for their club sides have excelled at international level and are key reasons why Northern Ireland qualified as winners of Group F.

When looking at the Northern Ireland team, there are no superstars, they do not have a Bale or an Ibrahimovic but there is a united feeling to the team and they are definitely not at the tournament just to make up the numbers. If Northern Ireland are going to progress they are going to have to rely on the likes of Steven Davis in midfield, who had a magnificent season for Southampton in the centre of the park. His defensive attributes will be used to guard against the attacking prowess of both Poland and Germany.

The group is difficult for Northern Ireland is that the likes of Will Grigg, who is coming from League One football to playing the superstars of the German will have to adapt to a huge step-up in quality of opposition. However, I believe that determination and grit that is developed while playing in the lower leagues will play to Northern Ireland’s advantage. It could be argued that this is something that England struggle with, regardless of the domestic level they are playing at, the Northern Ireland players come to the international scene and ready to fight and give their all for their country.

Lafferty is a great example of this, he has struggled throughout previous domestic seasons but he thrives at an international level, Michael O’Neill has set him a job perfect for his attributes and he performs this to an excellent level. He scored 7 goals in their qualifying campaign and will be important if they are going to progress into the knockout stages.

With the change in system, Northern Ireland have a great opportunity to finish 3rd in their group and still progress to the knockout stages. Poland and Germany seem too strong for Northern Ireland but they will put up a good fight; 3 points over Ukraine could be vital and could give the Northern Irish a great chance to progress. Northern Ireland scored the highest number of goals from set-pieces during qualifying, they scored from 9 set pieces and that is definitely something that they can try and use to their advantage.

Michael O’Neill summed it up well when in a recent interview with The Daily Mirror, he said “We are the type of country no one wants to play.” By saying this, I think O’Neill is talking about both the fearless nature of the team and how comfortable the players are in their positions. O’Neill is right, Northern Ireland will put up a great fight against any team they come up against in France. The team is packed full of experience with players such as Chris Baird and Aaron Hughes who have nearly 200 caps between them. This will also be important as their experience will play a key role in allowing younger players such as Paddy McNair and Connor Washington to excel in this tournament.

Overall, despite being regarded as the underdogs, in my opinion Northern Ireland have a great chance to shine in this tournament and I think they will surprise many with their determination. If I was to predict how they will fare I’d say playing their best football they have a really good chance to get to the knockout stages, from there anything can happen.

In the meantime, there is only one song that can really prepare you for the next month of football…

Will Griggs on fire, your defence is terrified,
Will Griggs on fire, your defence is terrified,
Will Griggs on fire, your defence is terrified,
Will Griggs on fire
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na…

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