It was widely considered the darkest night in Northern Ireland’s footballing history. They had been the victims to Luxembourg, a team comprised of students, bankers and a gym caretaker somehow seizing the minuscule nation’s maiden home victory in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier in September 2013 – 41 years and 43 matches after their first attempt.
That was not the only thing drowning Michael O’Neill in pressure. The former Newcastle United, Dundee United and Hibernian player had only won once in almost two years in the hot-seat, during which time Northern Ireland had plummeted to an all-time low of 129th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Yet when a P45 - signalling his sacking - seemed inevitable, the Irish Football Association (IFA) produced a new contract. Heads shook in disbelief and, six winless matches later, they were still shaking as the Northern Irish entered UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying – where Greece, Hungary, Romania and Finland awaited – with merely one victory in 22 outings.
Having finished below Azerbaijan and only one point above rock-bottom Luxembourg in their Brazil 2014 qualifying group, they were expected to do battle with Faroe Islands to avoid Group F’s wooden spoon. O’Neill’s men, by contrast, are firmly en route to their first major tournament since 1986.
Northern Ireland kicked off their campaign in Hungary and, despite being behind with ten minutes remaining, Kyle Lafferty’s last-gasp effort snatched them a first away win in four years. The towering 27-year-old, who is on loan at Caykur Rizespor from Norwich City, then scored in back-to-back 2-0 victories: first at home to Faroe Islands and then, remarkably, in Greece.
Northern Ireland’s progress was stunted when, stricken by injury, they lost 2-0 in Romania in November. What had nevertheless been a superb start to EURO qualifying, coupled with the devaluation of previous results, has rocketed the Green and White Army up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Having been 95th in August, an eight-place leap on the latest edition has left them in 43rd – above the likes of Sweden, Turkey and Republic of Ireland.
I'm buzzing playing for him. He is the best manager I have played under and gets the best from me.
And since that was published on 12 March, Northern Ireland have had further reason for cheer. After a late goal condemned an under-strength side to a 1-0 loss away to Scotland in a friendly, O’Neill’s first-choice men responded with a 2-1 win at home to Finland in the France 2016 preliminaries on Sunday. It left Northern Ireland second, one point behind Romania, four points clear of Hungary and a whopping eight above fourth-placed Finland (the top two qualify automatically, while the third-placed finishers are guaranteed at least a play-off).
Veteran goalkeeper Roy Carroll, defender Gareth McAuley and captain Steven Davis have all been central to that unforeseen success, but there’s no doubt to whom it is most indebted. Lafferty, who collected more red cards than goals in Brazil 2014 qualifying, got both those goals against the Finns – a fine volley preceding a canny header – to leave him trailing only England’s Danny Welbeck on EURO qualifying’s scoring chart.
"Kyle has scored two fantastic goals,” said O’Neill. “He’s put a difficult time behind him. He's playing with bags of confidence and with a smile on his face."
The man who has been named man of the match in all of Northern Ireland’s four victories returned the praise. "What Michael says inspires me and gets me up for the games,” said Lafferty of O’Neill. “I'm buzzing playing for him. He is the best manager I have played under and gets the best from me.
“He pulls me to one side before every game. The last campaign I let everyone down, but Michael had a word with me and it really hit home. The trust he has shown in me means a lot.”
Trust, indeed, has been catalyst in Northern Ireland’s upturn. The Danish Football Association (DBU) was under intense pressure to remove Richard Moller Nielsen from its reins in the early-1990s. It resisted. He masterminded one of the mightiest miracles in EURO history.
The IFA’s faith in O’Neill, and his in Lafferty, could result in another fairytale: a place at France 2016. “Qualifying is a realistic possibility,” said the manager. So too, perhaps, is the possibility of eclipsing Northern Ireland’s personal best of 27th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in the near future.