Northern Ireland's new era
© AFP

With a population of 1.75 million, Northern Ireland should really be a footballing minnow. Instead, they could be better described as the piranhas of the international game; ready, willing and more than able to prey on nations many times their size.

Just ask Spain, Sweden, England, Denmark and, most recently, Poland. Over the past couple of years, all have tasted defeat at Windsor Park, the tight, uncomfortable little stadium Northern Ireland are proud to call home. Giants are slain with such frequency in Belfast, in fact, that last month's 3-2 win over Poland - population 38 million - hardly registered on football's Richter scale. Even the fact that Nigel Worthington's side climbed to the top of Group 3 in European Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ on the back of the victory, then strengthened their position by beating Slovenia on 1 April, did not raise too many eyebrows.

Northern Ireland's ability to punch above their weight is, after all, well established, with the Province having been represented at three previous FIFA World Cups. Famously, they even succeeded in advancing beyond the first round at two of these, reaching the quarter-finals at Sweden 1958 and beating the hosts en route to topping their section at Spain 1982.

New heroes emerge

Yet as recently as a few years ago, it was thought that these halcyon days were gone forever. By February 2004, the team had gone 1,298 minutes without a goal and were in the midst of an equally lamentable winless sequence that would eventually span 16 games. The following month's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking made predictably bleak reading: Northern Ireland plummeted to 124th. Now, five years on from this all-time low, they can celebrate scaling a record high, having climbed 15 places to 27th in last month's Ranking to equal their best-ever position.

It's not a place visiting teams enjoy coming to play. Sometimes it helps us if the opposition come here and get a bit of a culture shock.
Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans on their Windsor Park home

The last time this high-water mark was reached, in August 2007, it was on the back of the goals of one man: David Healy. The striker, who scored 13 times in 11 UEFA EURO 2008 qualifiers to become the preliminary stage's top scorer, is Northern Ireland's all-time leading marksman and remains a key player.

However, Nigel Worthington's high-flying side are no longer as dependant on Healy as they once were, with the likes of Warren Feeney and Jonny Evans emerging to exert an ever-greater influence. Both were outstanding in the wins over Poland and Slovenia, with Dundee United's Feeney scoring vital goals in both and Evans bringing his fine club form with Manchester United into the international arena.

Home comforts

Another significant weapon in Northern Ireland's armoury is Windsor Park itself. The compact, 105-year-old stadium is not, by the locals' own admission, one of European football's most aesthetically spectacular football venues. However, what it lacks in gleaming, state-of-the-art facilities and lush, green turf, Windsor Park more than makes up for in atmosphere, and Evans for one loves it just the way it is.

"It's not a place visiting teams enjoy coming to play, that's for sure," he told FIFA.com recently. "It's no Old Trafford but that's not a bad thing, I think. Sometimes it helps us if the opposition come here and get a bit of a culture shock. We definitely see it as a weapon."

The question now is whether Northern Ireland can consolidate their position at the summit of Group 3 and close in on a place at South Africa 2010. September will bring a major test of their credentials in this respect, with a demanding double-header that involves a trip to third-placed Poland before the visit of Slovakia, currently just one point behind in second.

With Czech Republic and Slovenia also harbouring ambitions of wresting top spot away, Worthington's side can be assured of a stern test of their character and resolve before this race reaches its conclusion. Fortunately, such attributes have rarely been found lacking in Northern Ireland, a nation modest in size but truly colossal in spirit.