Euro 2016 will mark debuts at the continent’s top international tournament for both Wales and Northern Ireland after a remarkable qualifying campaign for British teams.
Wales have only reached the finals of a major tournament once before in their history, and will compete at the highest level for the first time since the 1958 World Cup.
Northern Ireland have similarly endured a long barren spell, missing out on all tournaments since 1986. Both teams qualified automatically for the championship by finishing in the top two, joining an England side who topped their group with a 100 per cent winning record.
Despite Romania’s final day victory over the Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland clung to top spot in Group F, and qualified with a comfortable five-point margin over third placed Hungary. They won six of their matches and go into their first ever European Championship in their best form for years, an achievement scarcely imaginable after a poor fifth place finish four years ago.
As for Wales, reaching the Euros is a staggering feat made all the more poignant by the tributes flooding in to late manager Gary Speed. Speed, who passed away in November 2011, can be credited with much of the work that went into building the current Welsh side, and manager Chris Coleman was quick to dedicate the achievement to his predecessor. That Wales could overcome such a tragedy and accomplish so much in its wake is as much a testament to their mental fortitude as it is to technical ability.
Qualification had the added effect of proving wrong critics who accused Wales of relying too heavily on Real Madrid attacker Gareth Bale. While Bale was instrumental in their success, scoring seven times in 10 matches, it takes more than one player to mount a successful qualifying run. Coleman’s men lost only once in the qualifiers, a defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina in their penultimate match that proved irrelevant as other results went their way. Conceding only four goals and keeping seven clean sheets is a result of excellent teamwork rather than reliance on one exceptional talent.
That it was a qualifying campaign of unprecedented success within the British Isles will be of little comfort to Scotland, who narrowly missed out on a play-off place to the Republic of Ireland. Being drawn into a group with world champions Germany and an in-form Poland meant that qualification was always going to be a difficult prospect. An unexpected loss to minnows Georgia and Ireland’s victory over Germany proved to be decisive factors as the Scots fell three points short of the mark.
Although the bitter disappointment of not qualifying will hurt Scotland fans, the Tartan Army were given plenty to shout about. Aside from their slip-up against Georgia, the only team to beat them was Germany, 2-1 in Dortmund and 3-2 at Hampden Park. To test the World Cup winners so thoroughly is no mean achievement, and to say that Scotland played above and beyond expectations is no patronising comment. In Glasgow, Scotland twice came from behind to level against a team brimming with world-class talent and can be considered unlucky not to have salvaged a point.
Thus despite failing to qualify, Gordon Strachan is expected to continue as manager, a fact which is indicative of the confidence generated by a generally strong campaign. The Scottish FA clearly acknowledge that not qualifying was as much down to strength of opposition as it was Scotland’s own performances.
Qualification proved to be little more than a formality for England, who won every match in Group E and conceded only three times. Though their opposition was undoubtedly weak, maintaining a perfect record is not to be sniffed at, and the Three Lions look ahead to next year’s tournament with the usual high expectations.
Whether a group containing Lithuania and San Marino will have adequately prepared them for the best teams in Europe remains to be seen.