They’re the Ballymena men who will be at the very forefront of an unforgettable summer of Northern Ireland football.
As the country’s national team touch down in France this week for their historic European Championships debut, there will be a strong Ballymena input both on and off the field.
The most obvious link is that of manager Michael O’Neill, who has masterminded an extraordinary revival in Northern Ireland’s fortunes, taking them from also-rans to qualifying for their first major finals for 30 years, while also guiding Northern Ireland to an all-time high position of 25th in the FIFA rankings.
O’Neill’s drive, determination and spirit is epitomised on the pitch by his captain, Cullybackey man Steven Davis, who has emerged as a world class midfielder, never more clearly illustrated that with his famous two-goal salvo in the qualifier against Greece that helped clinch Northern Ireland’s place in France.
There is also a strong Ballymena flavour to Northern Ireland’s success off the field. Martinstown man Jim Shaw has been a steady hand on the tiller as President of the Irish Football Association and his close relationship with O’Neill has been instrumental.Behind the scenes, Harryville man Raymond Millar plays a key role as kitman, while the Ballymena connection is completed by physiotherapist Neil McCullough, who has been drafted in to provide back-up to the medical team travelling with the squad.