Belfast Telegraph

Biting back: With caution, Northern Ireland holds its breath

By Graham Luney

Before the first whistle at Windsor Park on Sunday there was still the feeling that all this was too good to be true. By the final whistle the feeling was this is really happening.

If Northern Ireland progress to the Euro 2016 finals it will represent one of the great comeback stories of international football.

Kyle Lafferty, now aged 27, wasn't even born the last time we made it to a major tournament, the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, and isolated heroics against England, Spain and Germany have not been able to heal the scars inflicted by embarrassing results against Canada, Iceland, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

After only one win in the last World Cup qualifying campaign what has changed?

Northern Ireland have a clever manager in Michael O'Neill whose commitment to the cause is reflected in his attention to detail, work ethic, tactical nous and man management skills, particularly with regard to Lafferty, a player he could easily have discarded after his dismissal against Portugal.

The players have something to fight for rather than just pride and O'Neill has stopped them getting swept away on a tide of emotion.

With three of the five remaining qualifiers at Windsor, a nation is beginning to expect, but cautious optimism has served us well up to now.

Belfast Telegraph