Euro 2016 was a special tournament for fans of Northern Ireland, with the ‘Green and White Army’ reaching the Round of 16, narrowly being defeated by Wales. There is one game however that will forever be imprinted in the minds of fans, the 2-0 win over Ukraine leading to the players becoming known as the Kings of Lyon.
In this article, I am going to have a look at the goalkeeper and defenders that started the game against Ukraine, with Michael O’Neill selecting a four-man defence after opting for three centre-backs and two wing-backs in the previous match against Poland.
Michael McGovern – Goalkeeper
McGovern cemented his name as a hero for Northern Ireland in this tournament, with the following game against Germany earning him a move to Norwich City. He earned the man of the match award against the Germans, despite being on the losing side of the narrow 1-0 result. He wasn’t first choice at the start of the qualifying campaign, with Roy Carroll being preferred. It wasn’t until matchday five against Romania that he took the No.1 shirt.
The now 35-year-old was playing for Hamilton Academical in the Scottish Premiership the season before the Euros began, he later left the Scottish side at the end of his contract and was reunited with his former Hamilton manager Alex Neill at Carrow Road when he joined the then English Championship side, Norwich.
He is still with the Canaries, making 31 appearances so far. He has made two appearances in the English Premier League, coming on as a substitute in a 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, and playing the full 90 minutes in a 5-1 defeat to Aston Villa. He is still involved with the Northern Ireland set-up, being named in the squad for the postponed Euro 2020 Play-off semi-final against Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has however lost the No.1 shirt to Bailey Peacock-Farrell, with McGovern making his last appearance for his country in a 3-2 away win against the Czech Republic in a friendly.
Aaron Hughes – Right Back
A Northern Ireland legend who was a surprise starter for many in this tournament, especially at right-back, with the emergence of Conor McLaughlin and Paddy McNair, who were the two players deployed at right-back during the qualifiers. He was solid throughout the tournament, using his experience to help the younger players in the squad and to help keep his side in the game for the whole 90 minutes.
At the time of the tournament, Hughes was playing for Melbourne City in the Australian A-League. After the end of the Euro 2016 campaign, Hughes moved to the Indian Super League, playing for Kerala Blasters and then signed for Scottish Premiership side Hearts in January 2017 going onto make 27 appearances for the side.
The now 40-year-old announced that he would retire at the end of the 2018/19 season, bringing to an end a career that spanned 23 years at eight clubs. This also brought to an end his international career that saw Hughes wear the international shirt 112 times, becoming the most capped outfield player for Northern Ireland during his career (though Steven Davis has since overtaken this record).
His final international appearance was in June 2018, during the 3-0 friendly defeat to Costa Rica in the South America tour that summer, playing at left-back.
Hughes is currently working towards earning his coaching badges and revealed in an interview with the BBC that he would like to be involved in the admin side of football but still affect the performance of a club, with a Sporting Director role or Technical Director being two options that he is considering.
In January 2020 he was named on the New Year’s Honours list, receiving an MBE for services to football.
Craig Cathcart – Centre-back
With the centre-back position being heavily contested during Euro 2016 for Northern Ireland, it was Cathcart who got the nod at the right centre-back position. He had a back-up role for much of the qualifying campaign, deputising for the injured Jonny Evans during the final two qualifiers against Greece and Finland, with Hughes being selected ahead of Cathcart during the earlier qualifying matches when Evans was not in the squad.
The now 31-year-old joined Watford in 2014, joining on a free from Blackpool. He remains with Watford and is a regular in the English Premier League. It is only recently however that he has established himself in the centre-back position for his country, with his experience of Premier League football proving vital to help give Northern Ireland an opportunity of reaching back to back European Championships.
Cathcart has made 49 appearances for the ‘Green and White Army’, playing the previous nine competitive matches, with the friendly match against Luxembourg being the only match he has missed in the last ten fixtures for Northern Ireland. He has got a few more years left in his career, and now is the time he can show his true ability after cementing himself in one of the centre-back slots for his country.
Gareth McAuley – Centre-back
McAuley scored one of the most famous goals in Northern Ireland history, heading his country into the lead against the Ukrainians and thus creating one of the most famous pictures in Northern Ireland sporting history.
He played a huge part in the qualifying campaign for Northern Ireland, playing every game. He also scored three goals in the campaign, with all three coming against the Faroe Islands and coming away from home. He also captained the side away in Romania, the only game the side lost in the qualifying campaign.
During the Euro 2016 campaign, McAuley was playing for West Brom who he signed for from Ipswich in 2011 on a free transfer. He made 203 Premier League appearances during his time with the Baggies before being released in July 2018. He then made a surprising move to Glasgow to play for Rangers but only made ten appearances for the Gers, with two appearances in the Europa League, although one only lasted a minute. In January 2019 he was named on the New Year’s Honours list, receiving an MBE for services to football in Northern Ireland.
The now 40-year-old announced in September 2019 after being released by Rangers that his footballing days were over and officially retired. He now wants to spend some time with his family before deciding on his future plans.
Jonny Evans – Left Back
Evans was deployed at left-back during the Euro 2016 campaign after Chris Brunt missed out through injury. He only played in four of the qualifying matches as injuries hampered his playing time. He played at centre-back during the previous match against Poland, and this is the position that we normally see him play in. However, he has played at in this position many times in his international career, including on his debut in the famous 3-2 home win against Spain in 2006. He played at left-back for much of his early international career, before becoming one of the first names of the team sheet at centre-back.
During Euro 2016, Evans was playing for West Brom having joining the Baggies for just under £8 million in 2015 from Manchester United. After the Baggies got relegated at the end of the 2017/18 season, he joined Leicester City for just over £3 million. This fee was his relegation release clause with Manchester City previously failing with an £18 million bid, with Arsenal and Leicester also submitting bids for £25 million. What a piece of business Leicester did by getting him for £22 million less than their previously rejected bid.
He is still with the 2015/16 Premier League champions and is enjoying a lengthy spell in the starting eleven, forming a strong partnership with Çağlar Söyüncü. He is currently vice-captain of Northern Ireland and has played in the 27 of the previous 28 competitive matches, with the only exception being Northern Ireland’s last fixture, the 6-1 defeat away to Germany.
So there is a little insight into what McGovern, Hughes, McAuley, Cathcart, and Evans are up to now. It’s crazy to think that they are all over the age of 30 now, with Hughes and McAuley now 40. What’s even crazier is that the veterans only hung up their boots recently, while still playing at a high level. In the next article, I will have a look at the midfielders and forwards, with O’Neill opting for five in midfield and a lone striker up front.