History-maker Norman Whiteside hails Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland marvels
Northern Ireland legend Norman Whiteside admired the new and improved Windsor Park stadium during a visit yesterday but he's counting down the seconds to the feast of football in France this summer when Michael O'Neill's men plan to shoot down Europe's big guns.
There's a feelgood factor rarely experienced on these shores after Northern Ireland booked their ticket to the Euro 2016 finals.
The older generation of the Green and White Army can recall the glory days of the 1980s when former Manchester United favourite Whiteside and his pals fought in two World Cups. Whiteside was aged 17 years and 41 days when he broke Pele's record to become the youngest ever player to appear at a World Cup when Northern Ireland went to Spain in 1982 and shocked the hosts 1-0 to reach the last eight.
The Shankill Road man, who made 38 Northern Ireland appearances, scoring nine goals, was also part of Billy Bingham's squad for the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico and netted in a 1-1 draw with Algeria. Since 1986 Northern Ireland supporters have endured many low moments but now fans are riding a wave of optimism with many even believing they can progress out of a group which includes European champions Germany, Ukraine and Poland in the finals.
"It's always a great achievement qualifying for a major tournament and the fact we haven't managed to do it in 30 years makes it more special," said Whiteside, who helped fire Manchester United to two FA Cup triumphs in the 1980s.
"It's been a hard slog with lots of different managers and lots of different players.
"I'm sure Michael would be the first to admit that he got off to a tricky start but then he persevered with the boys he has and they have come good. It's a magnificent result in the end to get to France."
"It's an easy group, absolutely!" he joked. "We always say when we get to these tournaments, whether it's ourselves or other countries like Wales, it's our final getting there but I would never write us off as the support we have is worth an extra player for a start. Everyone will go out and have a great time but we will still be professional about it and you never know what could happen. Don't lose your first game, that's the first objective.
"It's up to individual players how they approach the tournament. I was very young back in 1982 so I didn't really have anything to fear. It will affect the boys in different ways and some of the senior lads may even be nervous because they have never played on a big stage like that before."
Northern Ireland have moved up to 26th in the Fifa world rankings, their highest ever placing and one place better than in 2007 when Lawrie Sanchez was boss.
Whiteside, who was helping to promote a knockout five-a-side football tournament called Red Bull's Neymar Jr Five yesterday, added: "In years gone by we were always down past the hundred mark, maybe 115, then 109 then back down again and so it went on. That's all I remember but it's very nice to see us climbing in the top 30."
A fierce competitor and accomplished finisher during his Manchester United career, Whiteside admits it has been frustrating at times watching his old club this season.
"United have been like a roller-coaster this season, up and down," he said. "It reminds me of the time I played in the 1980s when we could go and beat a good Liverpool side or Arsenal or the other big boys but then lose the next one at Old Trafford.
"They have been inconsistent and if you want to win things you must be consistent. Whether Louis van Gaal stays on or not is the million dollar question. Jose Mourinho's name was on everybody's lips in Manchester but only the owners and directors can make that call."
Neymar says give me five
Former Northern Ireland internationals Norman Whiteside and Jim Magilton were at Windsor Park yesterday to help launch the knockout five-a-side football tournament, Red Bull's Neymar Jr's 5.
Players aged 16 to 25 will have the chance to represent Northern Ireland at the world final in Brazil this summer.
Brazil and Barcelona ace Neymar is hoping players from more than 35 countries across six continents will sign up for the fast-paced competition.
The regional qualifying rounds will start next month in Belfast, Cookstown and Coleraine with a national final in Northern Ireland taking place on May 29. Teams of five to seven players can sign up now to register their team for the first rounds of the tournament via www.neymarjrsfive.com