Michael O’Neill’s men now have their 2018 schedule complete after organising a home tie with Israel in September, three days after their Nations League meeting with Bosnia in Belfast. The friendly fixture sits alongside other ties with South Korea, Panama, Costa Rica and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, adding to the Nations League games against Austria in October and November, and Bosnia in September and again in October.
2018 will be one of the toughest calendar years for the national team to date, not merely due to the fact that players and coaches alike will have to get used to the new system for Euro 2020 qualification.
After a somewhat hectic period for O’Neill, where he was strongly linked with the Scotland national team among several club sides, Northern Ireland fans can now look forward to another strong qualification campaign under their leader, a crucial component to their recent success. The hugely popular manager somehow increased his reputation with the Northern Ireland faithful after opting to extend his contract until 2024, allowing him to remain in charge for the next two European Championship campaigns and the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
O’Neill isn’t the only one in high spirits as the side prepare for another tough set of fixtures this year, with the Northern Ireland players in fine form for their respective club sides this season. Kyle Lafferty has hit the ground running in his debut season back in Scotland with nine goals for Hearts, while fellow Scottish Premiership representatives Jordan Jones and Niall McGinn have also impressed at Kilmarnock and Aberdeen respectively. Up and coming international George Saville has also been a regular at Millwall, Josh Magennis has found the net countless times this season for Charlton while even Will Grigg may find himself back in contention after his FA Cup heroics against the star-studded Manchester City.
Veterans Michael McGovern, Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes will undoubtedly be considering their international future, yet as has happened in the past, these Northern Ireland legends may have one final push left, and the efforts of Michael O’Neill in persuading them to give their all one last time have not gone unnoticed. Captain Steven Davis has, like McAuley, found playing time hard to come by in recent weeks for the respective clubs, and yet despite a lack of match fitness, the pair will always find their name on the Northern Ireland team sheet, such is their importance to the national side.
Familiar faces in the likes of Asmir Begovic, Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko will be turning out for Bosnia, while Christian Fuchs, David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic are the main men to watch out for when Austria line up against Our Wee Country. Not so long ago, an inferior Northern Ireland side would never have feared such opposition, but would more often than not fall short of a positive result. Nowadays, the fear element remains the same, yet the expectations couldn’t be more different, with O’Neill’s men rarely forgiven for not giving such opposition a closely fought game.
With hundreds of fans already booking their trips to home and away games, both for the friendly encounters and for the Nations League games, the unparalleled Green and White Army will once again be on hand to get their side through some stern opposition. The Ulster boys certainly know how to cheer on their team through thick and thin, and will undoubtedly be central to any success the side may have going forward.