Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland won't take foot off gas on road to Russia says assistant manager

 

By Graham Luney

Jimmy Nicholl has reassured Northern Ireland fans that nothing will be taken for granted in the fight to make it to the World Cup finals in Russia next year. Michael O'Neill's side are where they want to be in qualifying Group C, four points clear of the Czech Republic and on course to grasp a November play-off spot behind leaders Germany.

A vital 1-0 victory in Azerbaijan at the weekend - Stuart Dallas netted the winner in second-half injury-time - has raised expectation levels, and the players are hungry to make history as no Northern Ireland side has progressed to back-to-back major tournaments.

O'Neill's number two Nicholl played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals, but Billy Bingham's side missed out on the 1984 Euros in France.

After topping their Euro 2016 qualifying group and progressing to the last 16 in France last summer, the current crop of heroes are beginning to feel invincible, fearing no one, home or away.

Germany are the only side who have scored against Northern Ireland in the current campaign and, with a trip to San Marino up next followed by a home clash with the Czechs in a September double-header, the fans are daring to dream again.

Nicholl, who won 73 caps for Northern Ireland, says he's convinced the players will not become complacent just as Russia appears on the horizon.

"The good thing about Northern Ireland is that we are never over-confident," said the 61-year-old, whose playing career included spells with Manchester United, West Brom, Sunderland, Raith Rovers, Rangers, Dunfermline and Toronto Blizzard.

"We have San Marino coming up next and the boys will prepare for that game in the same professional manner they always do. Michael's preparations are very detailed and thorough and it is getting results, but we are never complacent.

"We have been presented with a great opportunity, and we are on the brink of achieving something special, but we want to go to San Marino to win that game."

Nicholl, whose solitary Northern Ireland goal came in a 3-0 win over Sweden in a World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park in October 1980, has cherished memories of the glory days under Bingham and he's quietly confident the class of 2017 can make it to the world stage.

"It's a great opportunity for the team now," said Nicholl, who was twice in the running to land the Northern Ireland job but missed out to Bryan Hamilton and Lawrie Sanchez.

"After the Euro 2016 campaign the players have pushed on and progressed rather than settled for what they achieved. They can sense that something special is happening again and I can also feel it.

"There's a big target for the boys to aim for, qualification for a World Cup, and I feel the way they prepare themselves for games and their focus says a lot about their desire and how they want to improve.

"I look at Premier League players like Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt and listen to them talk about how much they love playing in this team and joining up for a game in June, and that's not Michael telling them to say that, the lads really want to be involved and are enjoying their football.

"The 1982 World Cup left us with a great feeling but we just missed out on the 1984 European Championships. We did make it to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and there was a great bond between the players and atmosphere in the squad which I can see replicated with the team today.

"There's a good blend of young and experienced players, some of whom are hungry to seize their last chance of making it to a World Cup finals. It's a massive ask but there's belief there and it's probably similar to the 1986 squad when Billy Bingham had a few players who were coming to the end of their careers.

"Yes, this team lost to Wales at the last 16 stage in France, but they have used that disappointment to help drive them on in this very tough qualifying group. They could have given up but instead they kicked on again and set a new ambitious target."

Nicholl admitted the performance in Azerbaijan won't live long in the memory but the result was priceless.

"The players have endured long seasons and this game involved a lot of travelling and it was exhausting with almost three weeks of preparation, but the lads rose to the occasion and it's a big win which moves us a step closer to a possible play-off place," he added.

"I think everybody knows it wasn't a great performance, in fact it was probably one of our poorest of the campaign, but it's the result that mattered and it was a huge three points.

"It was a very important result, particularly when you consider the warm conditions and the timing of the game in June. Michael had a lot of work to do in terms of the preparations for the game but the players responded magnificently.

"A lot of hard work and commitment was involved but it was all worthwhile in the end. The players understood it was a massive game and we are all delighted we managed to get the result.

"If the team can make it to back-to-back major tournaments for the first time in Northern Ireland's history, it would be a very special achievement."

Throughout this campaign, the spotlight has been on O'Neill's future with supporters fearing an offer could tempt the former Shamrock Rovers chief back into club management.

There was talk of interest from Celtic, Leicester City, Norwich City, Sunderland and Middlesbrough and Nicholl, whose last managerial role was with Cowdenbeath, accepts the speculation will not go away.

"The ironic thing about management is that some people say you shouldn't go into international management at a young age because you have a lot of time to do that," he added.

"People in their advanced years, maybe in their 60s, look to try that, but Michael has taken the job and now he's in a position where he has a chance to make history with Northern Ireland.

"If he can achieve that the world is his oyster in terms of his managerial career. In fact, it probably already is but he may have a decision to make at the end of this campaign.

"There has been talk of interest from clubs and an exciting offer could tempt him, no-one knows if that will happen, but this campaign will run until October and hopefully beyond then so we must wait and see what happens.

"A return to club management could happen for Michael, but it depends on many factors and right now we are all focused on making it to Russia."

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