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Editor's Viewpoint

Euro qualification would be huge lift



Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

William Cherry/Presseye

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

After Northern Ireland's historic first qualification for the Euros in 2016, the Irish Football Association produced a book on the team's efforts in the competition entitled Dare To Dream.

That title sums up how thousands of local fans will be feeling tonight as the players attempt back-to-back qualification by beating Slovakia at Windsor Park.

Appearances at major football tournaments are something of a rarity for Northern Ireland, but given the small population and small pool of players available to pick from, it is astonishing that the team has ever reached such heights.

But then Northern Ireland is proud of its footballing tradition and the world class players it has produced - George Best and Pat Jennings being two outstanding examples - and revels in its traditional role as underdog.

However, to paraphrase an old saying, every dog, even an underdog, has its day, and the boys in green and white have produced many of those over the years.

It is a sign of the optimism and resilience of the team that it continues to perform heroically and fans will be hoping that tonight will see that effort turned into victory.

Talking about football at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is taking lives and causing fear among significant numbers of people may seem trite or even insensitive. Yet sport, particularly football, has the ability to lift the spirits of people. We identify with our sporting heroes and share in their reflected glory.

Of course, victory will not come easily tonight, and there is no doubt the team will miss the vocal support of its 12th man in the stands, the Green and White Army, with the number of fans admitted being severely curtailed.

The match is taking place against the strangest of backdrops as we sit between the pandemic and the possible cure of a vaccine. The dangers of winter are well-known, and it will be spring at least before vaccinations will be rolled out to the general public.

But as the hope of spring follows the annual darkness of winter, so too is the hope that come next summer Northern Ireland will be taking its place among the elite football nations of Europe.

The fact that the tournament is spread over 12 cities, including Dublin, Glasgow and London, will make some games more accessible.

Hopefully, tomorrow Northern Ireland fans will be making travel plans to see the team in action on one of the game's biggest stages.

Belfast Telegraph