Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is daring to dream again
NI manager says his men are keen to build on Euros joy and reach World Cup but tough challenges await
After this summer's Euro 2016 fairytale, the Northern Ireland management, players and fans are riding a wave of optimism and not even the sight of World champions Germany can knock them off it.
No longer the whipping boys or a laughing stock on the international stage, Northern Ireland's miracle achievement in topping their Euro 2016 qualifying group and progressing to the last 16 in France has commanded worldwide respect.
The players, many of whom were haunted by the ghosts of heartbreaking defeats, tasted major tournament action and it has whetted the appetite for more glory days.
Unquestionably, they face a bigger mountain to climb if they want to make it to the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018 but boss Michael O'Neill has pointed to the solitary retirement of Chris Baird as evidence of a new belief and mindset in his squad.
The hurdles ahead are daunting and O'Neill is smart enough to recognise that Germany - who beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in the group stages in France - are the big boys in the playgroup who won't be bullied but there is a chance to grab a second-placed spot.
To do that, O'Neill's men must finish above the Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.
The top team from each group will qualify for the finals in Russia with the eight best second-placed sides going into the play-offs.
With the first game coming up against the Czech Republic at the Generali Arena in Prague on September 4, it's once again time to dare to dream.
"The mindset will be good," said O'Neill, who named his 23-man squad for the clash yesterday. "I've had conversations with various players and they are very focused and looking forward to it.
"With only one retirement in Chris Baird, I think that shows the appetite of the players. Aaron's (Hughes) situation is that he hasn't retired, he's just not fit at the moment or game fit as he is in Australia and training on his own with the Indian season not starting until the end of September.
"That is very encouraging to me as I'm not dealing with up to four or five retirements that people thought we might be. When you have a situation like we have when one team qualifies and you're in a group with the World champions it's the most difficult group there is.
"I was looking today and it's only twice since 1950 that Germany have not won their World Cup qualifying group so if you want some statistic on how difficult it's going to be then that's probably the one you'll look at.
"We'll make sure we are as competitive as possible but history tells us that Germany will win the group. We have to make sure that we do as well as possible and the players are looking forward to the challenge having had a taste of a major tournament.
"Certainly the players at the later stages of their careers would love to get to a World Cup finals and we have to do everything possible to make sure that happens."
Tom Flanagan and Michael Duffy are new faces in the squad. O'Neill added: "It is important to try and freshen the squad up. Tom Flanagan is a player that came into our Under-21s later under Stephen Robinson and only made one or two appearances in friendly games.
"Michael Duffy has consistently performed well for our Under-21s as well as with Dundee."
Who are the new boys?
Michael Duffy - Celtic
Celtic midfielder Michael Duffy is on loan at Dundee and Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill praised the player for his commitment to the Under-21 side.
An attacking midfielder, he came through the youth ranks with Northern Ireland and has seven under-21 caps.
After impressive performances for his hometown club Derry City, partticularly in Europe, he earned a dream move to Celtic in February, 2015.
Although the 22-year-old has yet to make a senior appearance for Brendan Rodgers’ Hoops, he did secure first team experience last term with Alloa Athletic.
This season he is on loan at Dundee where he has netted once in his opening six games for the Scottish Premiership side.
Tom Flanagan - Burton Albion
Burton Albion defender Tom Flanagan has, like Michael Duffy, impressed for the under-21 team and Luke McCullough’s injury opens the door for the 24-year-old.
Flanagan, who has played once for the Under-21s, was born in Hammersmith and began his career at MK Dons. He captained the Dons under-18 team in January 2010 and made his first team debut as an 82nd-minute substitute in a 5–0 defeat to Carlisle United the following month.
In August 2010, he signed his first professional contract with the club but ended up embarking on several loan moves to Kettering Town, Gillingham, Barnet, Stevenage and Plymouth before being released in the summer of 2015. The 6’4 defender agreed a deal with Burton Albion and has been a regular in the side that are playing in the Championship.
Road ahead in Group C
The top team from each qualifying group will progress to the World Cup Finals in Russia with the eight best second-placed teams going into the play-offs.
Northern Ireland’s major headache is that world champions Germany will lead the charge in Group C. Aiming to cling onto their coat-tails are Michael O’Neill’s boys, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.
Only a sensational performance from keeper Michael McGovern prevented Northern Ireland from a hammering against Joachim Low’s side this summer but we do boast a rich pedigree against Germany stretching back to the 1958 World Cup Finals and including the famous back-to-back victories in the Euro 84 qualifiers.
Fixture list: September 4, 2016: Czech Republic v Northern Ireland; October 10, 2016: Northern Ireland v San Marino; October 11, 2016: Germany v Northern Ireland; November 11, 2016: Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan; March 26, 2017: Northern Ireland v Norway; June 10, 2017: Azerbaijan v Northern Ireland; September 1, 2017: San Marino v Northern Ireland; September 4, 2017: Northern Ireland v Czech Republic; October 5, 2017: Northern Ireland v Germany; October 8, 2017: Norway v Northern Ireland