Northern Ireland: 500/1 EURO 2016 outsiders aren’t going as a joke

Everyone loves a giant-killing, except when it’s your team on the receiving end.

Football is full of fairy-tales, of FA Cup shocks, League traumas and bitter relegations.

As a result, it sometimes feels that international surprises are swept under the carpet, and with EURO 2016 in France fast approaching, there is one team that people don’t seem to be paying much attention to: Northern Ireland.

The Green and White army have been slowly going about their business after qualifying for a major tournament for the first time in 30 years. That’s some achievement, especially when you consider their qualification journey was almost flawless.

Bar one defeat to Romania, Northern Ireland remained unbeaten in the qualifying stages, finishing top of Group F with the likes of Romania, Hungary, Finland, The Faroe Islands and Greece all below them.

Their success has been rewarded with a group that contains Germany, Poland and Ukraine – a considerably trickier task than their previous venture.

Following the group draw, many football fans, journalists and pundits have completely written off Michael O’Neill’s side. But for a team that currently sit 28th in the world, this is quite an insult. Only four years ago Northern Ireland were 129th, which shows the considerable progress they’ve made.

In the recent past the squad has been made up of mainly Football League players and those who ply their trade abroad. But this time round, O’Neill has a crop of top-quality names to choose from.

From the Premier League you have the likes of Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Paddy McNair, Craig Cathcart, Steve Davis and Kyle Lafferty – all big stars that would improve the majority of international squads in some shape or form.

Then you have the Championship players who are all playing well domestically with Oliver Norwood, Shane Ferguson, Conor Washington and Jamie Ward just a handful that have performed well in England’s second tier this season.

So that’s the squad, but what hope do they have? And who are the players that can bring success to the country?

Everyone loves an undedog and Northern Ireland are definitely that. Some bookmakers have them as low as 500/1 to win the tournament, so for those feeling optimistic, a £1 bet wouldn’t be too daft.

Yes it’s fair to say they aren’t anywhere close to being favourites, with many expecting them to get knocked out in their group, but if they can beat Ukraine, and possibly a draw against Germany or Poland, they’ll be in a good position depending on other results.

You get the impression that this is the first time in a while that the Northern Ireland fans are considerably optimistic for a national tournament. They overcame a tough Slovenia side 1-0 at Windsor Park on Monday evening, further adding to their EURO 2016 credentials.

It’s always interesting when you have an underdog, and this year they won’t come any smaller than Michael O’Neill’s side. But, to those ruling them out at this stage, just wait and see.