- Northern Ireland seeking qualification to first World Cup since Mexico 1986
- Reached highest position in the FIFA Ranking last month
- Manager Michael O’Neill talks about the team’s incredible bond and more
Michael O’Neill was just a month shy of his 13th birthday when Northern Ireland enjoyed arguably their greatest FIFA World Cup™ moment. At Spain 1982, the then-smallest country at the tournament shocked the watching world as Gerry Armstrong’s solitary goal sunk the host nation in Valencia, enabling Billy Bingham’s men to storm to the second round against all odds.
Thirty-five years on from Armstrong’s iconic winner against La Roja, O’Neill is hoping to make some World Cup history of his own: by leading Northern Ireland to their first global finals since Mexico 1986.
"Everyone in Northern Ireland remembers that Spain game – Gerry’s goal and Mal [Donaghy] being sent off," O’Neill told FIFA.com. "I remember watching the match, totally fixated on the TV, and the atmosphere in Valencia being white hot. I was so nervous and I don’t think anyone really believed we could beat Spain at the World Cup.
"One thing that stuck with me was how that team refused to relinquish the lead, even when they went down to ten men."
The grit, determination and sheer belief showed by that side at Spain 1982 is mirrored within O’Neill’s current crop of players. After experiencing their first major tournament in 30 years at UEFA EURO 2016, where they again defied expectation by reaching the Round of 16, Northern Ireland have enjoyed a solid Russia 2018 qualifying campaign.
While runaway leaders Germany look difficult to displace at the top of Group C, O’Neill’s men have their sights set on finishing second behind the world champions, and hope to reach Russia via the fiercely competitive play-offs.
"It would be phenomenal if we got there. There’s plenty of work to be done, obviously, and looking at the group the way it is, if we do manage to secure second, we’re then going to have to beat a very good team to get to Russia," O’Neill said. "We’d be well-equipped given we were at the Euros last year and we have tournament experience.
"I think if we could get to Russia our spirit alone would make sure we’d have a tournament to remember."
As Northern Ireland target a return to the World Cup, they do so with considerable momentum. Positive results under O’Neill, who oversaw his first game as manager in February 2012, have seen Northern Ireland rise in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking from their lowest placing of 129th in September 2012 to 22nd in July 2017 – the highest standing in their history.
The Netherlands, Nigeria and Czech Republic are just a few of the traditional powerhouses that O’Neill’s men currently sit above. While climbing over 100 places in the Ranking in five years is a dramatic ascent in itself, Northern Ireland’s rise is even more remarkable considering their modest 1.8m population and lack of world-renowned stars.
"We have five players in the Premier League, which is probably the lowest number we’ve ever had playing at the top level of English football," said O’Neill. "When I look back at the squads I was in as a player, there was considerably more than that.
"Our squad composition really comes from the English Championship and the Scottish Premiership and that’s credit to the team and their strength as a unit that they’ve got to the position they’re in. We’re a tiny nation when you look at us in comparison to some of the countries that are beneath us and the number of professional players that we have."
A tiny nation they may be, but Northern Ireland are giants compared to minnows San Marino, their next opponents in World Cup qualifying (1 September), before attentions turn to a crunch-match with play-off-chasing rivals Czech Republic three days later.
"San Marino is a game we won’t take for granted. At home they can be difficult to play against and they’ll not make life easy for us," asserted O’Neill. "San Marino away and Czech Republic at home is a similar double header to what we faced in Euro qualifying when we went to the Faroe Islands and then hosted Hungary. We’ve been through that and the experience will serve us well."
Whether it be in San Marino or the vital encounter against the Czechs in Belfast, Northern Ireland will be able to count on their vocal, green-clad fans for unwavering support. Renowned for their passion and good humour, the Green and White Army serenaded France with the likes of 'Will Grigg’s On Fire' and 'Sweet Caroline' in 2016. They will be hoping to do the same in Russia next year.
"You see it in the body language of the players when they play for Northern Ireland,” said O’Neill. “There’s a real strong bond between the team and the supporters and I think that’s something that’s very important to any future success that we may have."