History, hysteria and sheer joy: when such a reserved character as Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis starts using such language, you can be sure something’s afoot. And it is: defeat Hungary at Windsor Park, Belfast tonight and Northern Ireland will reach the European Championship finals for the first time in the competition’s history. As Southampton midfielder Davis says: “We’re on the cusp of something really special.”
Michael O’Neill’s blossoming Northern Ireland players have overturned all expectations, including their own, by finding a consistency and coherence that has elevated the team ranked fifth in Group F to first place.
There is much focus on the 10th anniversary today of David Healy’s celebrated winner against England at Windsor Park, but a more relevant comparison is with this week two years ago when O’Neill’s team lost 3-2 in Luxembourg.
Davis, 30, played in that game and says: “When you look at it that way, it has been quite a turnaround. But we saw signs of progress, and something to build on.
“In this campaign we have put everything together. Things have clicked, now we have to stay focused. Everyone is just embracing the situation. I don’t sense any nervousness.”
Friday night in the Faroe Islands was almost perfect for O’Neill. Not only did he see his team win 3-1, there were no injuries, no suspensions collected – and Hungary were drawing 0-0 with Romania in Budapest.
Those results have left the winning scenario offered tonight but O’Neill is fully aware that Hungary remain ranked four places higher than his team and have not conceded a goal in their last five qualifiers. A draw would not be a bad result. The Irish would then have a home game against Greece and a trip to Finland next month to get across the line to France.
“If we have to go to the 89th minute in Finland, then so be it,” O’Neill said. “It doesn’t have to be done on Monday night. There is an urgency about it, but the mindset of the players isn’t about having to win on Monday. If we don’t win, it isn’t disastrous, and that’s a good position to be in.”
O’Neill is expected to name an unchanged team from Friday. That means Kyle Lafferty will again be up front, hoping to add to his six goals in qualification.
The 27-year-old Norwich City striker missed the Luxembourg game two years ago because he had been sent off against Portugal four days earlier in a game the Irish led 2-1 until a 15-minute Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick.
It was a personal turning-point for Lafferty, who said: “The team and the country needs the Kyle Lafferty with the head screwed on, not the clown. And I have matured. I love coming away now. I think this is the first campaign I’ve been available for every single game and I’ve started every single game.
“The transformation is down to Michael. He sat me down the day after I was sent off against Portugal. It’s difficult when you think you’ve got a good relationship with someone and a guy you respect is saying things that hurt you. But when I went away and had a think about it, I knew he was right.” It is one of many details O’Neill has got right.Reuse content