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Players are now legends whose names will live on

By Steven Beacom

Published 09/10/2015

Billy Bingham
Billy Bingham

Carve these names in stone. Roy Carroll, Michael McGovern, Conor McLaughlin, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt, Shane Ferguson, Ryan McGivern, Craig Cathcart, Chris Baird, Paddy McNair, Luke McCullough, Sammy Clingan, Corry Evans, Oliver Norwood, Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Jamie Ward, Paddy McCourt, Billy McKay, Ben Reeves, Niall McGinn, Josh Magennis, Kyle Lafferty and Liam Boyce.

All have played in this sensational qualifying campaign which will finish in Finland on Sunday with Northern Ireland topping Group F if they pick up a point.

And throw in Alan Mannus, Trevor Carson, Will Grigg, Daniel Lafferty, Caolan Lavery, Ryan McLaughlin, Andrew Little, Matthew Lund, Paul Paton and Maik Taylor too... all unused substitutes in a series of games when dreams were made, culminating last night at Windsor Park.

The last time Northern Ireland qualified for a major tournament, the venue was Wembley.

It was 1985. Thirty years ago.

Hard to believe now but back then with Billy Bingham in charge it was almost expected. After all, we reached the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain and there was a feeling around the country that qualification for Mexico 1986 would be achieved too.

Even so it took some doing, with a scoreless draw against England beneath the twin towers completing the job.

At Wembley Pat Jennings made stunning saves and Alan McDonald made everyone watching on TV sit up and take notice, when he told millions of viewers that anyone who thought the game was a fix to come round and see him.

That passion, his commitment and the fact that he played in a team that qualified and then played in a major tournament turned Big Mac a legend amongst the Green and White Army.

He's a member of an elite group.

And every single one of them who played in the three World Cups - the other was in 1958 - Northern Ireland have qualified for are considered sporting greats in the place we call home.

From Harry Gregg to big Pat, Peter McParland to Gerry Armstrong, Bertie Peacock to Billy Hamilton, Jimmy McIlroy to Norman Whiteside, and the three captains Danny Blanchflower, Martin O'Neill and Sammy McIlroy.

Northern Ireland football icons, the lot of them.

Move over boys, there are new members joining Northern Ireland's major tournament club. And they enter this particular Hall of Fame with a badge of honour none of the above can claim. They are the first to reach the European Championship finals.

Bingham's team nearly did it in the '80s, beating West Germany home and away in the group stages, but just came up short.

Michael O'Neill's team did not.

Last night the class of 2015 created history and became Northern Ireland legends in the process.

What a feeling for the likes of Lafferty, whose goals and performances in attack have been so important since the campaign began a year ago.

He may have been the headline star of Group F for Northern Ireland, but he wasn't the only one.

All of them deserve immense credit, including the goalscorers Davis and Magennis in last night's 3-1 victory.

Now the race is on to make O'Neill's squad for the finals.

Nobody will want to miss out.

And you never know, perhaps a new face may come to the French party, much like the way Whiteside exploded on to the scene in the 1982 World Cup.

Anything is possible. Our new sporting gods have shown that already by qualifying for the France.

Belfast Telegraph

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