Steven Beacom: It’s your big chance boys – take it
It's crunch time. Don’t you just love it? Northern Ireland at the business end of the qualifiers — AGAIN.
For more years than I care to remember we were out of the running to make the finals of the European Championships and World Cup before half of our group games had elapsed. It’s been a refreshing change lately.
For Euro 2008 qualifying, Northern Ireland took it to the wire, going into the last fixture in Spain with a chance of making it to Austria and Switzerland, before sadly falling at the final hurdle.
And now with just three games left in the current campaign, we are right in the mix, knowing that three big performances and results could take us to South Africa.
Immense credit must go to Nigel Worthington and his players for putting us in this position, especially after starting so abysmally in Group Three.
Taking only one point from a possible nine in the opening three matches was the stuff of nightmares.
But the dream is very much alive after four successive victories.
It’s now a case of seeing it through.
Of course it won’t be easy and yes, it’s true to say most still believe we won’t do it, but the grit, determination and the often underestimated ability of the Northern Ireland players gives us a real chance of qualifying for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.
In the past five years under first Lawrie Sanchez and latterly Worthington, who has really come of age as an international boss, our team has made huge improvements.
Now they must up the ante even more and come away with something amid what promises to be a red-hot atmosphere in Chorzow against Poland on Saturday night.
The Poles will be up for it and then some after what happened to them at Windsor Park.
But, it’s worth remembering they are a flaky bunch, and no one more so than goalkeeper Artur Boruc.
As March 28 in Belfast showed, when Northern Ireland won 3-2, put him under pressure and he will wilt.
History will also tell you that while Poland look a decent team when they are in front, they tend to lack confidence and become tetchy when behind.
Score first then lads and you’ll win no problem!
Seriously it’s going to be tough out there, but not impossible, even allowing for our appaling away record against sides other than Liechtenstein and San Marino.
By the law of averages we will soon beat a decent side on the road.
Why not on Saturday?
If so Windsor Park will be rocking like it was when England, Spain and Denmark visited in recent years come Wednesday night against Slovakia.
The incentive is certainly there for what would be my starting line-up Maik Taylor, Jonny Evans, Stephen Craigan, Aaron Hughes, George McCartney, Damien Johnson, Sammy Clingan, Grant McCann, Steve Davis, David Healy and Kyle Lafferty and substitutes like Gareth McAuley, Martin Paterson and Ryan McGivern, who could play vital roles.
We should note by the time the next World Cup campaign comes around, I suspect some of the more senior players in Worthington’s current side won’t be involved, so this will be their last chance to reach the greatest show on earth.
Grasp it boys.
You really can do this.
In my time covering Northern Ireland, I’d say the most under-rated player has been Damien Johnson.
Not one to seek the limelight, I reckon only managers and team-mates know his true value.
He’s had his injury problems in recent years, but for a match of this magnitude and intensity, it’ll be great to have Jonty in the thick of it.
The last time Maik Taylor was in Poland, he produced a world-class performance. One of his countless saves was up there with the famous Gordon Banks stop to deny Pele — I kid you not.
Despite Maik’s heroics, we lost 1-0 in Warsaw. Hopefully he will have better luck on Saturday. Maik is 38 tomorrow, but thankfully has no plans to retire. Many happy returns mate.