County Celtic Connection - Part 1

14th December, 2015 •
Posted In: Other
Written By: Graeme Macleod •
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THE County Celtic Connection of Sean Webb, Conor Gethins and Calum Antell are all eagerly-anticipating this summer's European Championships in France and now that the draw for the tournament is out of the way, each of the trio has had the chance to digest their respective country's chances.

With two of the three Home Nations who qualified and the Republic of Ireland all represented in the Nairn dressing room, there will be strong interest in the tournament among the playing squad at Station Park despite Scotland's failure to make it.

We have sat down with each of the three players to discuss how they think their country will fair in the summer and to talk about their own international experiences, starting with Northern Ireland's Sean Webb.

The Northern Irish start their Group C campaign against Poland in Nice on Sunday June 12th before taking on Ukraine in Lyon on Thursday June 16th. Their last group stage match is the toughest of them all - a meeting with world champions, Germany at the Parc de Princes, Paris on Tuesday June 21st.

Webb - from Coalisland in County Tyrone - thinks his compatriots will be eager for a crack at the Germans and will carry no shortage of belief with them over to France.

He said: "They will be delighted at getting Germany because although it is a difficult fixture, it is glamorous."

"Everybody in Northern Ireland's pot was going to get a tough draw but I worked with Michael O'Neill when I was at Shamrock Rovers and from my time there and what I read about him now, his main attribute is organising the team and how he sets them up. They will give it a go against anybody and be well organised to try to stay in the game long enough that they have an opportunity to win it at the end. They should be able to do that against the teams in the group, although Germany are a cut above the rest."

He added: "From a players' point of view, they must be looking forward to playing Germany. I think the players will be thinking they have done really well to get there but will see it as an opportunity to get out of the group and at the same time, they will feel no pressure as no one will expect them to progress."

Poland pose another big threat to Northern Ireland's hopes of progressing but with four of the six third placed teams in the group stages also progressing to the knockout phase along with the top two from each group, the opening two games are going to be crucial for the Ulstermen.

Webb said: "They will have seen Scotland play against Poland and they have Robert Lewandowski, who is going to be a serious goal threat. Northern Ireland did really well in the qualifying group though and did not concede many goals. They have three or four really good defenders, like the centre half (Craig) Cathcart at Watford and three out of the back four from West Brom in Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Jonny Evans. That is a solid defence to build upon and then the best bit of quality I would say they have is Stevie Davis, who plays in the middle of the park for Southampton. Hopefully, they will be solid and that will give them a chance to stay in the games."

As well as the players he has mentioned, Webb is also crossing his fingers that unpredictable front man, Kyle Lafferty continues his recent run of impressive form for his country into the tournament.

He said: "Reading the press, Kyle Lafferty was not performing to his maximum but since Michael O'Neill has come in, he has turned him around in terms of his international career and you could almost say he is prolific for Northern Ireland. He scores regularly, does well and when you read his own press, he is positive about the influence Michael O'Neill has had on him, so we certainly need him to be fit."

"There are quite a few players playing in the English Championship and some in Scotland as well, like Niall McGinn. They need a strong squad because in the group stages, they will be playing games quite close to each other but if they can keep Davis, Lafferty and the back four fit then they will give themselves a chance."

Webb feels that the approach of manager Michael O'Neill has also been a huge factor in Northern Ireland reaching the tournament.

He said: "If you have seen Michael O'Neill's most recent interview after the draw was made, he is positive and says we are not just going there to make up the numbers but we are going there to get out of the group."

"He said that at the start of the qualifying campaign and everyone thought 'aye, no bother'. But then four or five games in, people changed their view and thought he might be on to something here. I would not bet against him and I know what he is like - he is meticulous and he has a financial background. He was working in a financial job when he was Brechin City manager. From what I can see, all of that helps him when it comes to managing a football team."

"There were the dark days years ago when we had not won an away game for a couple of years and players would turn up for international duty going into it with a negative mindset. If you are picking up results though, it is a completely different experience for the players and they are desperate to go and play for the country. I am not saying in the past that they were not but it is not as much of an enjoyable experience if you are turning up knowing you have not won away from home in two years. Now that he has momentum, he will be going at every game full tilt for a positive result."

Webb has four caps for his country and played in Northern Ireland's home win over Sweden on March 28th 2007 during qualification for Euro 2008, a campaign which saw the country finish third in the group behind the Swedes and Spain.

The 32-year-old was also an unused sub in the return match in Sweden and the away clash with Spain in Las Palmas.

He said: "It was going well under (Lawrie) Sanchez when I was involved and we were close to qualifying and the atmosphere in Belfast at Windsor (Park) was incredible. For the amount of people who were at the game, the noise was much unbelievable, so you can imagine that having qualified, everybody will want to travel and you will have expats in France who will add to the numbers. They will be well supported and I had thought about going with my brother because it might be a once in a lifetime opportunity - we will have to wait and see."

He added: "The highlight for me internationally was getting on for my debut against Uruguay but it was a great experience being brought into the squad and training alongside guys like Aaron Hughes, who played 200-300 games for Newcastle when they were going well. Guys like Keith Gillespie and David Healy were also in the squad and they were operating at Premier League level. It was great to interact with them when you went away."

"At under-21s level, I played alongside Stevie Davis, Chris Brunt and Sammy Clingan, although he is injured just now but usually gets picked in the squad when he is fit. Kyle Lafferty was involved when I was there and I played with Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans. Niall McGinn is younger than me but he came through the same boys' club, so I know him as well."

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