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Boys in green can make history

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 07/09/2015

Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill

Tonight Northern Ireland's international footballers have the chance to make history. If they can beat Hungary at Windsor Park they will qualify for the final stages of the European Championship for the first time after 13 previous unsuccessful campaigns.

It will also be the first time that Northern Ireland has qualified for the final stages of any major tournament for almost 30 years.

Those statistics show the magnitude of the achievement if they can win tonight. In many people's eyes the European Championship is an even more difficult tournament than the World Cup as there are so many high-class teams competing. In the World Cup there are potentially more minnows in the qualifying draw.

Perhaps some of the opponents in Northern Ireland's qualifying group saw them as one of the minnows, but they have ground out some marvellous results and now stand on the brink of history.

A lot of the credit must go to manager Michael O'Neill who had a very undistinguished start to his career as international manager, being unable to taste victory for several games.

But he has wrought a minor miracle during this European Championship campaign. For this is a Northern Ireland team without any marquee names in the line-up, unlike the teams put out by Scotland, England or Wales.

However, what the team does have is a unity of purpose and a determination among the players to do their very best for their country. Even when they have lost, no one could deny that they gave everything and, ultimately, that is all anyone can ask for.

Tonight they will be hoping that the team's 12th man - the crowd - can help spur them to victory. They need the fans to cheer them to the rafters and give them every encouragement.

Most of the team were not even born when Northern Ireland went to its last major tournament in 1986, but tonight they can emulate those heroes of yesteryear.

Of course, we must temper our optimism as opponents Hungary will not gift Northern Ireland the game. It will be a match where expectation could easily outrun realism, leading to frustration both on and off the field.

So come on the boys in green, make the whole province proud of you. And they might even be joined in the finals by the Republic, giving the whole island something to cheer.

Belfast Telegraph

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