Euro 2016: Northern Ireland sent Rory McIlroy message before Poland game

By Lyle JacksonBBC Sport at the Stade de Nice
McIlroy's inspirational speech to NI squad

Northern Ireland will go into Sunday's Euro 2016 match against Poland with a message of support from golf star Rory McIlroy ringing in their ears.

The four-time major winner recorded a motivational video which was shown to Michael O'Neill's men on the eve of the biggest match of their NI careers.

He said representing his country meant an enormous amount.

"Coming home as a major champion was one of the proudest moments of my career so far," said McIlroy, 27.

"It's an honour to represent Northern Ireland around the world - and to put our wee country on the sporting map.

"Tomorrow you will write the next chapter in our long and famous sporting story.

"When you walk out at that stadium in Nice, take a moment to think about our sporting icons, what they achieved, and how this is your chance to take your place alongside them."

McIlroy was at the match against Greece when Northern Ireland clinched qualification for Euro 2016 and met up with the squad at their Carton House training base near Dublin a few weeks ago.

Can NI can handle the pressure?

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill says he has no worries about how his players will cope with the pressure of a first major tournament appearance.

Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill's side are 12 matches unbeaten

The manager's expected line-up for Sunday's Group C opener against Poland in Nice contains just five current Premier League stars.

But O'Neill is not overly concerned about how they will deal with Europe's top marksman Robert Lewandowski.

"I have never prepared a team as well as this," said the 46-year-old manager.

"It is exciting to be here after four weeks of preparation," added O'Neill, speaking alongside skipper Steven Davis at a media conference at the 35,000-capacity Stade de Nice on Saturday.

"We are confident we are in a strong position. We know Poland's strengths and their weaknesses. They came through a tough qualifying group and have quality players."

O'Neill reiterated that there were no doubts over striker Kyle Lafferty's fitness.

Polish power up front

Robert Lewandowski
Robert Lewandowski scored 48 goals for club and country in 2015-16

Poland have been to the European Championship finals twice before, but have yet to win a match, finishing bottom of their group on both occasions.

But O'Neill pointed to their obvious strike power.

"Lewandowski is, in my opinion, one of the top two centre-forwards in the world," he said. "The other plays in the South American championship.

"But there are other threats. We have done a lot of work on Poland and it has been time well spent.

"Our back three are all in the Premier League and play against the top teams every week."

Northern Ireland are tournament outsiders, but have the longest unbeaten of any of the 24 competing nations.

O'Neill's men have gone 12 games without losing, their last defeat coming in a friendly against Scotland in March 2015.

O'Neill's painstaking preparations

The Northern Ireland team hotel features pool tables
O'Neill has added personal touches to Northern Ireland's team hotel and plenty of facilities to keep players entertained

O'Neill has been praised for his meticulous planning in the build-up to the tournament. For example, in training for set-pieces, some of his players wore bibs bearing the names of their Polish opponents.

But it is not just tactical nous and diligent homework on opponents that have won O'Neill admirers. The team boss has gone to great lengths to make his players feel at home as they get ready for their tournament debut.

O'Neill added personal touches like placing family photos in the bedrooms of the players at the secluded team hotel.

McNair poised for wide role

Manchester United's Paddy McNair, 21, is expected to start against Poland, having impressed in the right-sided position in warm-up games.

That would be a disappointment for Fleetwood Town's Conor McLaughlin who was a regular during the qualifying campaign.

Leeds United's Stuart Dallas is likely to be the choice on the left, ahead of Millwall man Shane Ferguson.

Poland manager Adam Nawalka said his players were prepared physically, mentally and tactically.

"Northern Ireland's strength comes from team work and team efforts," said Nawalka, who played for Poland at the 1978 World Cup.

"We will be ready to face them. There are no weak teams in this tournament."

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