Windsor Park: 18,000 reasons for Northern Ireland to finish third
Northern Ireland will be roared on by the biggest Windsor Park crowd in years if they make it into the 2016 European Championship play-offs.
The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that, with the multi-million pound redevelopment of the ground set to be completed in time for the two legged play-offs in November 2015, Irish FA chiefs are planning to bring the new 18,000 capacity into operation to give the team as much support as possible on what could be a momentous occasion.
At the weekend Northern Ireland were drawn in the same Euro qualifying group as Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Faroe Islands. The top two automatically qualify for the finals in France with the third placed side earning at least a play-off.
Finishing first or second would be the dream scenario, but third is a more realistic ambition for Michael O'Neill's team, setting up the prospect of a nail-biting play-off, home and away.
The group stage ends in October and it is unlikely the new Windsor will be ready then, but by the time the play-offs come around a month later it should be all systems go to cater for 18,000 supporters, which will be 4,000 more than the capacity during recent campaigns.
IFA President Jim Shaw said: "The new Windsor Park will be totally completed in the latter part of 2015, so in our group I don't think we will play any games in the completed Windsor.
"If we were to finish third we would be guaranteed a play-off at least and if we were in a play-off we would want to maximise the size of our home crowd to give us as much support as possible.
"By that stage Windsor should be compete, so in November 2015 there is a strong possibility that the new completed ground could host its first match."
And what a match that would be... with participation in a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup finals on the line.
Shaw (right) is optimistic, saying: "You are always positive ahead of a draw and in some respects this one gives us our best chance of qualification in a long time.
"All the teams are capable of beating each other and if we can win our games at Windsor Park, we will have a very good chance."
Northern Ireland's first home match, to be played on a newly relaid pitch, is on October 11 this year against the Faroes, just a month after Jonny Evans, Steven Davis, Chris Brunt and co kick-off the campaign in Hungary.
The other four group matches in Belfast take place in 2015 starting with a historic Sunday clash with Finland on March 29. Further Windsor dates next year are against Romania (June 13), Hungary (September 7) and Greece (October 8) with the group ending for Northern Ireland three days later in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki.
Work on the Windsor Park redevelopment will go on during that period, but there will still be seats for at least 10,000 with the Kop and North Stands remaining open.
Shaw said: "The knocking down of the South Stand will start fairly soon so there will be big holes around that area for the visit of the Faroe Islands. The idea is that the South Stand will be dealt with first because it gives us back increased capacity when it is completed. Work on the East (Railway) Stand will run parallel to this.
"The North and West (Kop) stands don't get touched until the end of the process so they will always be available even when work is going on elsewhere, providing us with a capacity of 10,000."
If Northern Ireland don't make the play-offs, the first match at Windsor with 18,000 spectators will be a glamour friendly in 2016.
When the plan to redevelop Windsor was given the go-ahead by government it was envisaged that the new stadium would be ready by the summer of 2015, but there have been issues to resolve leading to delays such as a legal battle between Crusaders and the IFA which ended amicably and when David Martin controversially returned to a senior post in the Association, initially to the annoyance of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) who of course are forking out the vast majority of the finance in the £31 million development.
Now the IFA are waiting for the European Union to declare state aid is appropriate for Windsor's upgrade before work can begin. Shaw is confident that 'imminent' decision will be positive.
The IFA President stated: "We are on the starting blocks waiting for the gun to fire. It's been a long process but Windsor Park will look fantastic when it is completed."