Northern Ireland will taste the European Championship Finals for the first time this summer after Michael O’Neill led his unfancied side triumphantly to the top of their qualifying group.
Pitched alongside Greece, Romania and Hungary, few expected the Northern Irish to come out as group winners but that is exactly what they did, losing just once in 10 games on their journey to Euro 2016.
O’Neill and his men took full advantage of the demise of Euro 2004 champions Greece in order to seize the opportunity that was in front of them.
Home and away wins against the Greeks gave Northern Ireland a crucial advantage over their direct qualifying rivals, all of whom dropped points against a Greece side that finished bottom of the group with only one win from 10 games.
It was a remarkable campaign from a Northern Ireland team that had previously managed to win just three times in 20 attempts in qualifiers for major tournament football.
Having led his team to France, however, O’Neill will once again find that the cards are stacked against him.
Group C has dealt Northern Ireland a severe challenge in their attempt to get past the initial stage.
They begin in Nice on June 12 against a Poland team that scored more goals than anyone else in qualifying.
A much different test will be in store in Lyon four days later against Ukraine, who shipped only four goals in 10 games before dispatching Slovenia in a playoff to secure their spot in France.
After that, Northern Ireland head to Paris to conclude their Group C journey against the world champions Germany on June 21.
It is a mammoth task for the Northern Irish, but, on their first appearance at this tournament, they will be determined to enjoy the experience, and they should not be easily discounted given the spirit O’Neill has instilled within the squad.
Raising The Game
Their hopes in France will rest on a core group of seasoned professionals who have served their country with distinction.
O’Neill’s players can be relied upon to give their all for the green jersey. Striker Kyle Lafferty has endured a struggle at club level but he contributed seven goals in qualifying, vital away goals in Greece and Hungary among them, alongside telling strikes in Belfast against Finland and Hungary.
Lafferty is the primary danger man but the likes of captain Steven Davis and Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn can also be relied upon to pose a threat in the final third.
Southampton’s Davis is the axis around which the Northern Ireland team is built, with Chris Brunt and Oliver Norwood favoured beside him in the engine room.
Central defender Gareth McAuley was a surprise goalscoring sensation in qualifying as he weighed in with three and the West Brom man, along with Jonny Evans and Chris Baird, brings vast experience at the back.
The fighting spirit that served Northern Ireland so well to this point will be tested to its absolute limit as they undergo a European Championship baptism of fire this June, but they do have some quality amongst their number and could surprise.
Goalkeepers: Roy Carroll (Notts County), Michael McGovern (Hamilton), Alan McManus (St Johnstone)
Defenders: Craig Cathcart (Watford), Jonny Evans (West Brom), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), Luke McCullough (Doncaster), Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood), Aaron Hughes (Melbourne City), Daniel Lafferty (Burnley), Michael Smith (Peterborough), Lee Hodson (MK Dons), Chris Baird (Derby County), Paddy McNair (Manchester United
Midfielders: Steven Davis (Southampton), Oliver Norwood (Reading), Corry Evans (Blackburn), Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest), Stuart Dallas (Leeds), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Shane Ferguson (Millwall), Ben Reeves (MK Dons)
Forwards: Will Grigg (Wigan), Kyle Lafferty (Birmingham), Conor Washington (QPR), Billy McKay (Dundee United), Liam Boyce (Ross County), Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock)