Billy Hamilton, one of Northern Ireland’s heroes from the World Cups in 1982 and 1986, has warned fans that qualifying for any major finals remains highly improbable.
Hamilton’s comments come in the wake of the draw for the 2014 World Cup finals which left Northern Ireland with a testing group that includes Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Euro 2008 semi-finalists Russia.
As well as that daunting pair, Northern Ireland will face testing trips to Israel and Azerbaijan with Luxembourg expected to be the whipping boys of the group.
Before attention switches to the quest to reach Brazil 2014, there are five matches remaining in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012 and Northern Ireland are still in with a chance of making the championships in Poland and Ukraine next summer.
A win for Nigel Worthington’s men against the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park next Wednesday will see them leap into third place in their qualifying group, just two points behind second place Slovenia and with a game in hand.
The group table would have had an even more promising appearance if it wasn’t for a disastrous draw against next week’s opponents in Toftir last October.
However, Hamilton maintains that fans hoping to see Aaron Hughes leading out his country on international football’s biggest stages should be wary of burdening the players with unfair levels of expectation.
Northern Ireland are the smallest country to have reached multiple World Cups and with a relatively meagre population of just 1.8million, Hamilton feels that qualification will always represent a mammoth task.
The ex-Burnley frontman who won 41 international caps during the late 70s and early 80s, warned: “You’ve got to look at the size of the country and the population.
“That small number then gets smaller again when you think that young people growing up will choose to play either football, gaelic or rugby.
“It’s only going to be every 30 years or so that you get an exceptional squad capable of qualifying.
“We’ve had some terrific results recently, but Fifa have made it very hard for the smaller nations like ourselves to get in.”
Hamilton represented Northern Ireland at two of the country’s three World Cups and was one of the chief protagonists as Billy Bingham’s side shocked the world in 1982 by beating the host nation Spain.
The Bangor-man was permanently enshrined in Northern Ireland’s footballing folklore when he provided the assist for Gerry Armstrong to fire in the winner against the Spanish — and it’s a goal he never tires of viewing.
“I wish I had a fiver for every time I'd seen it since. To be honest, I was just trying to put the ball into a difficult area,” he said.
“The ‘keeper decided to come out and could only get a hand to it and then Gerry was able to thump it in first time.
“It wasn’t the most aesthetic goal you’ll ever see, but it was important.
“I suppose it’s probably the most remembered goal in Northern Ireland’s history.”
The unlikely strike ensured Northern Ireland reached the second round where Hamilton provided further memorable moments with a brace in a 2-2 draw against Austria.
A 4-1 defeat to France in the other second round game ended Northern Ireland’s progress, but the tournament remains the highlight of his career.
“It’s something you remember forever,” said Hamilton.
“I was lucky enough to score at Windsor Park on my debut for Northern Ireland in the old Home Championship and that was fantastic, but playing at the World Cup for your country is special.
“I’ll never forget that night. The stadium in Spain was one of the first with an electronic scoreboard that counted down the minutes that were left.
“I looked up after 78 and didn’t look again for what I thought was about 10 minutes and the clock said 79.
“It was unbelievable when the final whistle went.”
Hamilton believes if the current crop of internationals are to have any chance of ending our qualification drought and enjoying similar experiences, three points against the Faroes are a necessity.
“I’d love to see the boys get to a tournament again and if it’s going to be this one then the next game is a must win,” he said.
Having already dropped two precious qualifying points against the Faroes during this campaign, Nigel Worthington will surely be telling his charges the same.
Billy Hamilton was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at Northern Ireland sponsors Vauxhall’s Big Pitch football match at Windsor Park. For more information go to www.facebook.com/vauxhallfootball
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