Clarke: Northern Ireland can spring a surprise

Colin Clarke, left, was the last man to score for Northern Ireland at a major championships
Colin Clarke, left, was the last man to score for Northern Ireland at a major championships
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The News kicks-off its Euro 2016 coverage with former Pompey and Northern Ireland striker believing his wee country can cause an upset in France...

Former Pompey striker Colin Clarke believes Northern Ireland will be no pushovers as his home country embarks on their first finals campaign in 30 years.

Michael O’Neill’s side booked their spot at Euro 2016 by topping their qualifying group and kick-off their adventure in France against Poland on Sunday.

Games against Ukraine and Germany follow in Group C.

But ex-Blues striker Clarke, who was a member of the Northern Ireland side that played at the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986, is confident that won’t be the end of the road for the men from Ulster.

He believes they can make people stand up and take notice of the improvements made by his country after three decades of hurt.

‘It’s unbelievable what Northern Ireland have achieved,’ said Clarke, who scored 27 goals in 108 outings for Pompey between 1990 and 1993.

‘Michael O’Neill has done a great job and it looks like he has got a good mix of players.

‘You look at it and it appears there’s a desire to play for the jersey again.

‘You wondered over previous years, did people really want to turn up and play for Northern Ireland?

‘But I think they’ve got that again.

‘It’s a good squad with no real superstars, they’re out there fighting for each other, and without that Northern Ireland will never be successful.

‘They’ve got a little bit of belief in each other and I think they’ll surprise some people.

‘It’s a tough group, but there’s no pressure.

‘They’ll go there with no-one expecting too much and the group could set up pretty well for them.

‘Germany will be tough, but if England can beat them then so can we!’

Clarke was the last person to score for Northern Ireland at a major championships.

That came in a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Spain in Guadalajara on June 7, 1986, as the men in green bowed out at the group stages in Mexico.

Since then disappointments have outweighed the sporadic good times in the country’s footballing fortunes, with the Ulstermen having to watch on from home as finals have been contested without a Northern Irish presence.

Numerous managers have come and gone, too, during that period.

But Clarke believes the Irish FA’s decision to keep O’Neill in a job after a less than convincing start to his tenure has paid off massively.

‘It wasn’t an easy job to start with, a few people had been in there and tried it,’ added Clarke.

‘But fair play to the Irish federation for keeping him in a job.

‘They probably could have moved him on, and maybe that bit of stability and continuity helped them achieve where they are today.

‘I was the last Northern Ireland player to score a goal in a major championship.

‘But I expect that will all change in France.’

– MARK McMAHON