Michael O'Neill: Northern Ireland must compete for qualification every time
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is determined that the Euro 2016 qualifiers prove to be the start of something big for the nation's football team.
With Northern Ireland on the verge of qualifying for their first major championships since the 1986 World Cup, O'Neill wants to ensure what has happened in the current campaign is not a one-off.
His aim is to see Northern Ireland compete for qualification every time rather than be one of the also rans which too often has been the case in recent times.
O'Neill admits the format of the European Championships has helped his side, with the top two in the group making the finals and third place guaranteed a play-off. For the World Cup only the group winners are certs to go to the finals with the runners-up in a play-off.
At present Northern Ireland top their Euro 2016 group, one point ahead of Romania and four in front of third-placed Hungary, following Monday night's thrilling 1-1 draw at Windsor Park with the Magyars thanks to Kyle Lafferty's dramatic injury-time strike after the home side went a goal down due to Michael McGovern's mistake and a man down when Chris Baird was sent off.
"Much has been said about us not being at a major tournament for 30 years and possibly doing it this time, but it is very important that we try to be competitive all the time," said O'Neill at the launch of the Irish FA's first Youth Football Strategy.
"We are not going to qualify all the time, but we have to make sure that we have to be as competitive as possible.
"There will be cycles in that we aren't as strong as we could be but with the new European Championship qualifying process we have to work on a four-year cycle.
"The Euros are always going to give us our big chance as opposed to qualification for a World Cup, though I think if you can qualify for the Euros you could roll that into a World Cup campaign and hopefully give it a right good go.
"I am hoping to see that with this squad. Yes, there will be transition in this squad but going forward I'd love Northern Ireland to always be going into the last three games of any campaign with something to play for. That is where we should be aiming to be."
With excitement surrounding the Northern Ireland team, O'Neill hopes that what his players are doing can serve to inspire.
"Hopefully the country is being inspired by what they are seeing from the team," stated O'Neill. "On Monday night people will have watched a team that refused to be beaten. Given the nature of the way we lost the goal and a man to the red card, it would have been very easy for the team to feel sorry for themselves and to not finish the game the way we did.
"I thought the spirit of the players was fantastic and I think it was an inspirational night. Hopefully people left the stadium feeling enthused and looking forward to the game against Greece."
Should Northern Ireland beat Greece at Windsor on October 8 or Finland in Helsinki three days later, they will go to next year's Euro finals.
They would also be bound for France if Hungary don't win their remaining games versus the Faroes and Greece.
"We have two bites at it and Hungary have to win both their games which is a big ask so there is a lot of pressure on them. It is very much in our hands," said O'Neill, confident that whoever replaces the suspended Lafferty, Baird and Conor McLaughlin for the Greek game will deliver.
"The group is tough and if it has to go to the Finland game so be it, but I am confident we can get the job done in our next home game. The plan against Greece is to win the match.
"In the draw with Hungary I thought we played well and was pleased with how we handled the game.
"The atmosphere after going a goal down was credit to the supporters," added O'Neill who, diligent manager that he is, will watch some of his players in TWO Scottish Premiership games tomorrow; Aberdeen v Celtic and Dundee United v Kilmarnock.
In the past week he has noticed the increased interest in his team from media and the general public across the UK and wants all connected with football in Northern Ireland to embrace it.
He said: "The exposure is good. The players deserve that and if they qualify they will get even more. It is good for the Association as well. We can't milk it but we can enjoy it. We must also continue to put our message out there and continue the good work we are doing."