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29 October 2015

How the home nations qualified

Northern Ireland and Wales will make their mark in France next summer.

By John Bew

Have the home nations finally learned some of the footballing lessons they have been handed over the past two decades? First, England won their Euro 2016 qualifying group with a flawless record, becoming the sixth team ever to do so. Then Northern Ireland qualified for their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, topping a group in which they were the fifth seed. Finally, Wales, after a late stumble, booked tickets to their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, where a 17-year-old called Pelé made his name.

Scotland had a tough task in the Group of Death and weren’t far off. They showed enough promise for their manager, Gordon Strachan, to be offered a new two-year contract. The Republic of Ireland, who finished just above the Scots, are marginal favourites to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina over two legs in mid-November and join the rest at Euro 2016.

What is behind this resurgence? In the case of England, it would be a mistake to get carried away, given their tendency to blink in the floodlights of a major tournament. Nonetheless, there is a sense that the last residues of the “golden generation” are being washed out of the bloodstream, with all the baggage that came with them.

Roy Hodgson is no tactical genius but he doesn’t need to be. His first task was to stop England being beaten by lesser teams. Rather than managing a team orbiting around ageing superstars or the next, over-promoted great hope, Hodgson has turned the Premiership’s greatest assets to his advantage: athleticism, pace and a pressing game, played in the opposition’s half. Players such as Danny Welbeck and Fabian Delph might not be in everyone’s first XI but they are perfectly fitted for international football. The pegs have begun to fit the holes.

For Wales and Northern Ireland, automatic qualification is a very different type of achievement, because of the mental hurdle they have leaped and the way they have done it. Both teams have distinctive styles. Wales have superstar quality in Gareth Bale (who won his country 11 points, with six goals and two assists) and Arsenal’s dynamic Aaron Ramsey. But they are built on firmer foundations than that. They have a robust and ball-playing back four, qualities embodied by the Swansea City pair Neil Taylor and the captain, Ashley Williams: one of the most underrated centre-backs in the Premier League.

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Northern Ireland’s talisman has been the rangy Kyle Lafferty, alumnus of Burnley, Rangers, FC Scion and Palermo, who scored seven goals in eight qualifying games. Lafferty holds the ball up like a Velcro pipe cleaner, runs tirelessly (despite being short of match fitness as a benchwarmer at Norwich City) and gets his fair share of yellow cards and suspensions through his harassment of opposition defenders. In Northern Ireland’s crucial 3-1 home victory against Greece, he was replaced by the equally physical Josh Magennis of Kilmarnock, a goalkeeper for much of his youth career, who scored his first international goal. What’s more, three of the back four are hardened enough to start for Tony Pulis’s West Brom.

It would be a misconception to assume that Northern Ireland are a throwback to the days of “lob it up to lofty”. The team is full of diminutive and technically gifted players. Southampton’s Steven Davis stands out. It is also significant that five of the squad graduated from the Manchester United Academy. They are confident in their ability and play without shackles – much as the smaller nations that have been giving England such difficulties in recent times do.

One should not forget that because of the expansion of the tournament (in which 24 teams will compete next year, rather than 16), Europe’s best were spread across more qualifying groups. Yet this was no fluke. Northern Ireland and Wales will make their mark in France next summer.

This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister