O'Neill: Our togetherness is our strength
Northern Ireland face Switzerland in Russia 2018 play-off
The country are hoping to reach first World Cup since Mexico 1986
O'Neill: "Windsor Park will play a huge part"
It is fair to say that Windsor Park is something of a fortress for Northern Ireland. In the last four years, Michael O’Neill’s side have lost just one competitive game on home soil, which came against world champions Germany in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying.
With Northern Ireland’s passionate, green-clad fans creating a deafening atmosphere, a rocking Windsor Park can be a nightmare for visiting teams. Events in Belfast in the first leg will be key to deciding whether Northern Ireland or their European play-off opponents Switzerland will claim a much-coveted World Cup place, according to O’Neill.
"Windsor Park will play a huge part in whether we can qualify for the finals in Russia,” Northern Ireland's head coach told FIFA.com. "The atmosphere there is fantastic, the crowd are extremely behind the team and they'll make it a difficult atmosphere for the opposition."
While solid at home, important results on the road – such as drawing against Czech Republic and snatching a last-minute winner against Azerbaijan – have also contributed to Northern Ireland reaching the European play-offs. Though on the verge of their first World Cup since Mexico 1986, Northern Ireland’s rise to being within touching distance of reaching Russia 2018 is anything but a fluke.
After finishing top of their qualifying group to reach UEFA EURO 2016 before going on to the knockout stages in France, O’Neill’s men successfully carried that momentum into the World Cup preliminaries.
"I think we deserve to be at the World Cup because of the campaign we had in qualification," O’Neill said. "It’s obviously very difficult when you’re drawn against Germany in qualifying, but to have finished second in the group we now have the opportunity of getting to the World Cup through the play-off.
"It’s over 30 years since Northern Ireland were last at the World Cup, it would be a fantastic achievement to get there again."
Pat Jennings, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside were among those who played in their country’s final game at the World Cup finals to date, in a 3-0 loss against Brazil at Mexico 1986. An entire Northern Irish generation have never witnessed their team at the world finals, but no-one will be hungrier to reach Russia 2018 than the players themselves.
Particularly for more senior squad members like Gareth McAuley, Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes, who boast over 225 international caps between them and witnessed many fruitless campaigns before qualifying for EURO 2016, reaching Russia would present the opportunity to call time on their extensive international careers on the biggest stage of them all.
"I think for these players to have qualified for EURO 2016 and to go onto the last 16 of the tournament, to then follow that up with qualification to Russia, would be fantastic," O’Neill said. “When they look back on their international careers, they’ll have achieved so much.
"The play-offs will be difficult, but for many of our players this will be the last chance to possibly play at a World Cup. That will be the motivating factor for us to hopefully come through the play-offs."
Team game Though small in stature, with a population of just 1.8m, Northern Ireland is a place that has produced real giants of the beautiful game – from Danny Blanchflower to George Best. The country's rise from 129th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings to their current spot of 23rd - and into the World Cup play-offs - in just five years is even more extraordinary for the fact they currently do not boast big-name superstars.
For Northern Ireland, it is a team effort. They are a side whose greatest strength perhaps lies in their incredible synergy.
"We have a very humble squad," said O’Neill. "The Northern Ireland team has a great humility about it and players who have played from a young age together. We have a strong team spirit, a really good work ethic. We have some very good players, but our togetherness is our strength."
Be it in Belfast on 9 November or Basel on 12 November, Northern Ireland’s players, coaching staff and fans are in this together, as they go searching for a place at their first World Cup finals since Mexico 1986.