Manager Michael O'Neill wants to take his team to the last sixteen: "We are going to have to be 'horrible' to play against."
Main player profile: Kyle Lafferty
Patience is not a known virtue of Maurizio Zamparini, the famously short-tempered owner of Palermo who made nine managerial changes last season alone and once warned his players he intended to: "cut off their testicles and eat them in my salad." Charming. Yet even the irascible 75-year-old was not prepared for what awaited his club when Kyle Lafferty arrived on a free transfer from FC Sion in 2013.
"He is an out-of-control womaniser, an Irishman without rules," Zamparini told a local Sicilian radio station as he prepared to sell the Northern Ireland striker to Norwich City after only one season. "He is someone who disappears for a week and goes on the hunt for women in Milan. He never trains, he’s completely off the rails. On the field he’s a great player, because he gave us everything he had and more. In terms of his behaviour, however, he is uncontrollable. My coach (Beppe Iachini) told me he cannot sort this player out, so he has to go."
Reputations are hard to shift in football and the Palermo president's verdict on Lafferty merely reinforced the image of a wayward talent, one who had struggled in the spotlight following his £3m move from Burnley to boyhood idols Glasgow Rangers in 2008. It speaks volumes about the 28-year-old's transformation, however, that he enters the European Championships as a bone fide hero in Northern Ireland and a key player for a manager who demands discipline, hard work and respect from every member of the squad.
Lafferty is a striker reborn under Michael O'Neill, one of the few managers who has been unable to unlock the towering centre-forward's potential on a regular basis. He failed to score once in O'Neill's first qualifying campaign as manager, for the 2014 World Cup, when Northern Ireland won only one of 10 matches to finish second from bottom of their group behind Azerbaijan and one point above Luxembourg. He scored seven times as Northern Ireland qualified for their first European Championships and first major tournament for 30 years as group winners. Only Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thomas Muller, Edin Dzeko and Artyom Dzyuba of Russia scored more in qualifying.
The turning point is easy to identify. It came after a 4-2 World Cup qualifying defeat against Portugal in 2013 when Lafferty appeared as a frustrated substitute and lasted only 13 minutes before he was sent off for a reckless foul. O'Neill slaughtered the striker in public, accusing Lafferty of "letting his team-mates down". In private, the manager issued more home truths that hit the striker hard.
"The transformation is down to Michael," Lafferty admits. "He sat me down the day after I was sent off against Portugal. It’s difficult when you think you’ve got a good relationship with someone and a guy you respect is saying things that hurt you. But when I went away and had a think about it, I knew he was right. He then gave me another chance and called me into the squad for the Cyprus match and a lot of managers wouldn’t have done that.
"When I came on against Portugal we were winning the game and in the first 30 seconds I lost my man and it cost us a goal. It doesn’t matter who it was, Ronaldo or someone else, I lost my man and then I was sent off after 13 and a half minutes. It was difficult and I’m pretty sure every other manager would have lost the plot with me. But he sat me down and talked to me like an adult. The things he said, he actually made me believe the lads need me in the team. He made me wake up. Had it not been for the sending off against Portugal I don’t know if I would be in this position now, helping the team. Obviously I had to grow up sometime. I can’t always be the player who loves a joke off the pitch but performs one in every three games. The team and the country needs the Kyle Lafferty with the head screwed on, not the clown."
O'Neill has improved Lafferty's confidence as well as form by making it clear he will start regularly and is a crucial part of the team. That was not the case at club level last season, where the striker made merely three substitute appearances for relegated Norwich City before joining Birmingham City on loan in the Championship. Lafferty's transformation is confined to Northern Ireland and, in what may come as a surprise to Zamparini, his private life. He married Scottish model Vanessa Chung at Gleneagles Hotel on the Saturday before joining up with his international team-mates at a pre-Euro training camp just outside Dublin. The honeymoon will have to wait. Six days after the wedding, Lafferty won his 50th cap for Northern Ireland against Belarus.
"I should have done it a long time ago to be honest," he said of reaching the half century. "In my first few years of my international career I took the piss really. I turned up whenever I wanted, messed about and wasn't concentrating on things. The last two or three years I have settled down, got my head sorted and turn up for every single game now. I started nine games out of 10 in the last campaign and to score seven goals was amazing. It helped the team to qualify which isn't just great for us as players, but also great for the country."
Tactics and key questions
Manager Michael O'Neill is not set on one favoured formation and deployed a variety of line-ups during the qualifying campaign with the priority being to stifle the opposition. The Northern Ireland manager used 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-2-1 when guiding the team to the top of Group F but has also tried 3-5-2 in recent friendlies. The shift to a three-man central defence was dictated by the loss of left-back Chris Brunt to a cruciate ligament injury, and the lack of established alternatives to the West Bromwich Albion player available.
Solving the left-back problem represents one of O'Neill's biggest challenges in France. His options, should he persist with a back four, include Shane Ferguson, Michael Smith and Daniel Lafferty – all of whom played for clubs in League One last season. Whatever side is selected, Northern Ireland will be hard to break down and supremely well-organised. "Without wanting to use the word," the manager has said; "We are going to have to be 'horrible' to play against."
That means disciplined defending by every member of the team – Northern Ireland lost only once in qualifying and set the longest unbeaten record in the country's history – a focus on set-pieces, accepting the opposition will have the lion's share of possession and having to work tirelessly without the ball, plus being ruthless when chances do arise in the final third. O'Neill likes to protect his defence with a five-man midfield regardless of the formation he starts with – wide men Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas, for example, will drop back alongside a three-man midfield whenever Northern Ireland are out of possession.
The pair are also crucial to supplying leading goalscorer and talisman Kyle Lafferty with enough crosses to utilise his aerial strength and picking out the midfield runs of captain Steven Davis. The Northern Ireland manager explains: "We have developed a mind-set in the group now where they are resolute and mentally tough to play without the ball. It’s not easy. Steven Davis wants to have the ball. We have players in our team who are technically good but we are going to have to outrun the opposition, defend set-pieces extremely well and be a threat at set-pieces. So in the final of the pitch we must maximise those opportunities as much as possible. That’s not new for us. It’s just that we are going to have to do it on a bigger stage."
Expected starting XI (4-3-2-1): McGovern; McLaughlin, McAuley, J.Evans, Cathcart; Davis, Baird, Norwood; Ward, Dallas; Lafferty.
- Which player will take everyone by surprise at Euro 2016?
Paddy McNair, providing he can dislodge Chris Baird as the team's holding midfielder. Louis Van Gaal saw the Manchester United youngster as a central defender. Martin O'Neill disagrees, believing the 21-year-old is a natural defensive midfielder who has years ahead of him in that role at international level with Baird now 34. His ability to protect the back-line could be essential if Northern Ireland are to progress.
- Which player could be a disappointment?
That's the thing about Northern Ireland at the Euros – there is no pressure on their players, there is no room for disappointment. The team have already exceeded all expectations by qualifying for the country's first European Championships and doing so in style, winning their group despite being in pot five when the draw was made. The disappointment is more likely to be a position rather than a player given the team lack's a top level left-back in the absence of the injured Chris Brunt.
- How far do you think your team will go and why?
The target is simply to get out of a very difficult group. Germany, Ukraine and Poland represent formidable opposition but that has often brought the best out of Northern Ireland. All hopes are pinned on a shock result against Poland or Ukraine and qualifying as one of the four best third-placed teams. It can be done.
The secrets behind the players
- Will Grigg
Grigg was the subject of one of 2015-16’s more innovative terrace chants. Wigan fans’ "Will Grigg’s on fire" adaption of Gala’s 1990s hit Free From Desire swiftly went viral. Sample lyric: "He will score goals, he will just score more and more. He will score goals, that’s what we signed him for. Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified." Wigan fan Sean Kennnedy was rewarded with a free season ticket by the club for coming up with the chant. Grigg is now regularly serenaded with the song by his Northern Ireland team-mates when the squad meet up: "It’s when I’m walking anywhere, even meeting up with the boys here, it’s the first thing they sing," he said.
- Kyle Lafferty
Much-travelled striker Lafferty was described as an "out of control womaniser" by the Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini during his stint at the Italian club in 2013-14. Lafferty has been married to a former Miss Scotland, Nicola Mimnaugh, and romantically linked with another, Vanessa Chung. Rangers are the only one of his eight clubs for whom he has made more than 100 appearances, though happily for Northern Ireland he tends to reserve his best performances for the national side – he has scored 16 goals in 49 international appearances.
- Roy Carroll
The goalkeeper has battled back from depression and alcoholism that afflicted him following spells at Manchester United and West Ham to remain a core part of the Northern Ireland squad, at the age of 38. He attributes the revitalisation of his career to spells in Greece, first with OFI Crete then Olympiakos, where he acquired cult status after saving a penalty in his first match for the club, a Europa League tie against Rubin Kazan in February 2012. He is now back in Northern Ireland, at Linfield, after a two-year stint at Notts County.
- Conor Washington
The QPR striker worked as a postman before turning professional, while playing in the Southern Football League for St Ives in Cornwall, for whom he scored 64 goals in 60 matches before earning a move to Newport County in October 2012. He moved to Peterborough before joining QPR for £2.5m in January this year.
- Chris Baird
Baird has played more times for Northern Ireland (76) than for any of his nine domestic clubs bar Fulham (127). In the 2004-05 season, his only five senior appearances were in international matches.
- Jonny and Corry Evans
Both Jonny Evans and his younger brother Corry made their Northern Ireland debuts before having played their first senior game at club level. Jonny earned his first cap in the 3-2 win over Spain in September 2006, four months before his debut for Sunderland, on loan from Manchester United, in an FA Cup tie at Preston. Corry’s first Northern Ireland appearance was in a friendly against Italy in Pisa in May 2009 but did not make his club debut unti October 2010, when on loan at Carlisle from Manchester United.
- Josh Magennis
The defender Josh Magennis started out as a goalkeeper and at one point became so disillusioned with his struggles in that position that he considered ditching football for rugby union.
Roy Carroll (Notts County)
Michael McGovern (Hamilton Academical FC)
Alan Mannus (St. Johnston MC)
Craig Cathcart (FC Watford)
Jonathan Evans (West Bromwich Albion)
Gareth McAuley (West Bromwich Albion)
Luke McCullough (Doncaster Rovers)
Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood Town)
Aaron Hughes (Melbourne City FC)
Lee Hodson (Kilmarnock FC)
Chris Baird (Derby County)
Patrick McNair (Manchester United)
Steven Davis (FC Southamptom)
Oliver Norwood (FC Reading)
Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers)
Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest)
Stuart Dallas (Leeds United)
Niall McGinn (Aberdeen FC)
Shane Ferguson (FC Millwall)
Will Grigg (Wigan Athletic)
Kyle Lafferty (Norwich City)
Conor Washington (Queens Park Rangers)
Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock FC)