Northern Ireland

Euro 2016: Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill 'hitch-hiked with Germany fans at Euro 2012'

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill celebrates after Niall McGinn scores against Ukraine at Euro 2016 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Michael O'Neill says his Northern Ireland side "belong in this tournament"

It's a mark of how much Michael O'Neill has achieved as Northern Ireland boss - this time four years ago a group of Germany fans he met had to Google his name to find out who he was.

But they have no need to do that now.

O'Neill is taking his side into a Euro 2016 clash with the world champions in Paris with a place in the competition's knockout stage at stake.

As he told the Irish Times, he needed to hitch-hike with some Germans during a scouting trip to Euro 2012, shortly after he had taken the job.

But he doesn't plan on returning any favours this time around.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gareth McAuley's towering header against Ukraine made him Northern Ireland's first major tournament goalscorer since Colin Clarke in 1986

O'Neill's and a friend went to the last European Championships in Poland and Ukraine to cast an eye over Portugal and Russia, who would be among Northern Ireland's opponents in their qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup.

He said they rented a car in Poland and but were not allowed to take it out of the country, which caused them a problem when they went to cross the border into Ukraine.

Crossing the Irish border is much easier than venturing between the two eastern European countries, he said, but German fans were on hand to help out.

"That border's not like Newry is today, there were checkpoints and all that," he said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Northern Ireland's win over Ukraine in Lyon was their first at a major tournament in 34 years

"We had a brainwave when we saw this bus with Germany fans - lots of people were staying in Poland and going across to Ukraine," he explained.

He "approached this wee bus" and soon they were on their way to the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

"My mate tried to explain what we were doing and who I was, so that we could get on," he said.

"They didn't know who I was, I was only in the job about six months, so when we got on they started to Google me and 'Northern Ireland manager' to see who I was.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Northern Ireland's players could earn a place in the knockout stage of Euro 2016

"I didn't have accreditation or anything, we just wanted to go on our own steam."

O'Neill said he "wanted to go to the tournament and see what it's about" from a fan's point of view.

"I wanted to see Russia and Portugal and I saw them both twice," he said.

But now he and his team are making an impact at the tournament for real - a win against Ukraine in Lyon last week means they are within touching distance of extending their stay in France.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Thousands of Northern Ireland fans have flocked to Paris to watch their side take on Germany

"We belong in this tournament," he said.

"I sampled that one, now we're in this one and we're part of it."

One thing is for certain - if O'Neill leads Northern Ireland to a shock result over Joachim Low's global stars on Tuesday, his stock will only rise higher.

And no German fan will never need to Google his name again.

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