How different it all was when Morocco last played at Windsor Park 24 years ago — on April 23, 1986 to be precise.
Then the fans were ready to give a farewell salute to Billy Bingham and his troops before they left for the World Cup Finals in Mexico.
Tonight when the Moroccan squad, known as The Lions of the Atlas (the Atlas mountain range runs through north Africa), parade their skills at Windsor the backcloth to the game provides a vastly changed picture.
Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington finds himself minus 12 regulars from his original selection due to injury and club commitments in the FA Cup. Indeed, the catalogue of casualties meant Nigel sitting by his telephone since Friday. At one stage he thought he might have to bring the boots out of the cupboard!
Not so in 1986. Northern Ireland had just repeated the feats of Sweden ’58 and Spain ’82. Now the fans were saying goodbye to the team as it left for the altitude build-up at Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Pat Jennings and company were about to set out on another historic adventure which saw him make his 119th and last appearance against Brazil. What an emotional moment as he walked down the steps to the dressing rooms at the Jalisco Stadium, Guadalajara, applauded all the way by the Brazilian superstars.
One felt a lump in the throat. It would be difficult to imagine a Northern Ireland team without the big man who had been a permanent fixture since making his debut along with George Best against Wales at the Vetch Field, Swansea in 1964.
Back, however, to that visit of the Moroccans who couldn’t stop the unbeaten eight-match run of a rampant Northern Ireland team, bursting with enthusiasm for the finals.
It was Morocco’s turn, then, to field an inexperienced, experimental line-up. They had only four regulars in it but their then manager, Jose Faria, assured everyone they would be a power when they competed in the finals.
They were certainly sub-standard at Windsor, with little to offer. They did not possess the rhythm and flair one expects from a top-flight African squad.
For Bingham, always meticulous in his planning, it was an ideal opportunity to find answers for many questions. Entertainment value was minimal but fans were happy for yet another Northern Ireland victory en route to what they hoped would be another glory era. Colin Clarke, then with Bournemouth, got the opening goal in the 13th minute but John O’Neill, the Leicester City defender, now a BBC television football analyst, brought down an opponent early in the second half and up stepped Muhammed Timouni (Cannonball of the Kasbah) to score from the spot. Who came up with the winner? None other than Blackburn Rovers striker Jimmy Quinn, a man of multiple clubs, who came on as a substitute and snatched the winner with an 86th minute header.
Morocco are not the power of yesteryear, particularly the golden era of 1979 when they won the African Nations Cup. Still, they should be a formidable Challenge for the Worthington Babes. Yes, changed days from April 23, 1986.
Northern Ireland 2 Morocco 1 (Windsor Park, April 23, 1986).
Northern Ireland: Jennings (Everton; Platt, Coleraine, 45); Ramsey (Leicester City), Donaghy (Luton Town), J O’Neill (Leicester City), McDonald (QPR), McNally (Shrewsbury Town), S McIlroy (Stoke City, capt), Penney (Brighton; Quinn (Blackburn Rovers 76), Whiteside (Manchester Utd; Hamilton, Oxford Utd 45), Clarke (Bournemouth), Stewart (Newcastle Utd; Campbell, Notts Forest, 66).
Referee: Keith Walker (Wales).
Goalscorers: Clarke (13), Quinn (86); Morocco: Timouni (65, pen)