Northern Ireland vs Finland: Carl Frampton in Michael O'Neill's corner for knockout occasion

Northern Ireland starting to consider first major finals since 1986

In one corner of Belfast yesterday sat the IBF world super bantamweight champion, Carl Frampton.

He was perched on the front row of the Northern Ireland team’s hotel press conference asking Chris Brunt and Roy Carroll whether he should be preparing for a trip to France for next summer’s Euro 2016 finals.

In another corner, the Evangelical Protestant Society were issuing a statement of dismay at the first Northern Ireland home international to be played on a Sunday.

“It marks another watershed moment in modern Ulster’s increasing rejection of the Lord’s Day,” read the statement, but their ire should be with Uefa and that organisation’s desire to rake in as much mammon as possible from television advertising. As manager Michael O’Neill said: “We appreciate and understand people’s religious beliefs – but the game must be played on Sunday, as that date was decreed when the fixture was made by Uefa.”

In the midst of this are Irish players excited by their start to the qualifying campaign and the potential rewards a victory over Finland would bring.

Having beaten Hungary and Greece away, and the Faroe Islands at home in the one game of four so far played in Belfast due to the redevelopment of Windsor Park, Northern Ireland have begun to consider points totals that might see them make a first major finals since the World Cup of 1986. 

“Sunday is very important, we’re back at home again,” said Carroll. The goalkeeper, 37 and now with Notts County, won his first cap back in 1997 and has experienced some close disappointments. But tomorrow, he said, “is one of the biggest games. We’ve got nine points and Finland are five points behind us. If we win this game there’s a big gap coming up. It’s probably 17, 18 points to come second.”

That is where Northern Ireland are in the group, behind Romania, who travel to Belfast in June.

The nine points from the opening three games  remained the total after November’s 2-0 loss in Romania, but O’Neill was hit by injuries then, particularly to captain Steven Davis. The Southampton midfielder is one of a handful of Premier League regulars at O’Neill’s disposal. He is back, as is Manchester United’s Jonny Evans.

On Thursday night they all gathered to watch a re-run of Frampton’s last fight and then had a Q&A with the Belfast boxer. “Having Carl here with the players last night was fantastic,” Carroll added. “It was amazing, an honour to be in the same room.”

Yesterday Frampton sounded pretty honoured too.

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