Irish FA's Patrick Nelson says NI has 'big chance' of Euro 2016 spot

Patrick Nelson

Irish FA chief executive Patrick Nelson has insisted that Northern Ireland will have a "big chance" of qualifying for the expanded Euro 2016 tournament.

Nelson made the comment as the IFA unveiled a five-year strategic plan on Tuesday.

The lead objective in the 2013-18 plan is for Northern Ireland to qualify for one of the next two tournaments.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill said that achieving the plan's key aim would be a "tough challenge".

But Nelson said: "With 24 nations in Euro 2016, it's going to be a big chance."

The European Championship finals have featured 16 teams since 1996, but that total will be increased for the next tournament.

O'Neill was cautious in his appraisal of Northern Ireland's chances of achieving one of the aims laid out in the glossy IFA document - to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup finals.

"I would never come out and say that it's going to be an easy route for us to get to a major tournament," added the Northern Ireland boss as he attended Tuesday's document launch.

"Certainly the Euros in 2016 will provide a better opportunity because there are more places at stake.

"The qualification for the third-placed teams either via a play-off or directly obviously gives us a greater chance to qualify.

"Where we are at the minute, with the resources we have, we'll need a lot of things to go our way in a qualifying campaign.

"We would need our best players available over the 10 games as often as possible.

"You always have to have that aspiration but for the Euros we don't have that many players who are going to come in and change our squad."

However, a more optimistic Nelson insisted that "it's now time" Northern Ireland qualified for a major tournament again after missing out in their last 14 campaigns.

"Our first and biggest objective is build an association that will bring us there," added the IFA chief executive.

"This time round, Bosnia & Hercegovina have qualified and Iceland made the play-offs. Estonia made the play-offs last time round."

NI boss Michael O'Neill says qualification for Euro 2016 will be a "tough challenge"

The second objective of the five-year plan is that the long-awaited Windsor Park stadium redevelopment is finally undertaken and completed.

Work was scheduled to begin three months ago but has been held up because of delays with the tendering process.

However, IFA chief Nelson told BBC Sport that he expects to see the project starting in early 2014.

He said: "It's about a 20-month process to do the demolition and the rebuilding so we'll hope we have a superb stadium by mid-to-late 2015.

"I'm not worried about being behind time. We're going to be on budget, on time in the end and we'll have a fabulous stadium which everybody in Northern Ireland will be very proud of."

Asked about reports that the IFA has proposed to give a £10m grant to Glentoran to aid the east Belfast club's stadium plans, the IFA chief executive replied: "We haven't allocated any money to anyone.

"We've developed a facility strategy. We developed it in late 2012. We consulted widely this year and we're looking forward to delivering it in conjunction with our government partners and our clubs over the next two or three years."

In the section on delivering a new national stadium, the IFA document said that a "major capital intervention project" would be launched to rebuild or renovate stadium and facilities at a "small number of local Premiership grounds".

When asked whether this would cause worry among some Premiership clubs, Nelson said that the association would aim to "develop better stadia and better facilities throughout the whole of Northern Ireland".

The Irish FA chief rejected suggestions that governance issues remain a concern for the association and could affect future funding.

David Martin's return to the position of IFA vice-president made headlines in early September as he had been forced to resign from the same post three years ago and had subsequently failed a suitability test for senior office.

"We've had a number of governance reviews over the past four years, which indicate that we are a well-governed association," Nelson said.

"I think you'll find nobody was personalising any matters."