Jimmy Nicholl: 80s were great times, now we have new heroes
Northern Ireland legend Jimmy Nicholl has described the current team's Euro 2016 qualification as one of his greatest experiences in football and offered his advice to all the players aiming to be involved in the action in France next year.
Nicholl has been there and done it at major tournaments, playing in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups in Billy Bingham's famous sides, and having been brought in mid-campaign by manager Michael O'Neill as his assistant, the ex-Manchester United and Rangers defender has played a key role in helping the likes of Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty take Northern Ireland back to the big time.
He enjoyed many glorious evenings as a player, but even he was overwhelmed by the celebrations and jubilation of last Thursday night at Windsor Park when Euro qualification was secured with a 3-1 victory over Greece.
"When we beat Greece it was one of the best nights and one of the best feelings I've ever had in football," said Nicholl.
"It really has been an amazing campaign, right from the start with the win in Hungary. Whenever I came in after four games I just felt there was something special happening.
"With the players seeing themselves top of the table instead of bottom or second bottom when they met up for the games, they were all confident and excited which makes a big difference.
"It has been a great achievement to make the finals. Everyone involved deserves credit from the IFA for having faith in Michael to the kit men with the squad and of course the players. I have seen everything here that goes on behind the scenes and everybody has played their part.
"There is great spirit in the camp, but real quality too. If you look at our back four we have several defenders who play in the Premier League and when you look at Steven Davis in midfield, he is a quality player and big Laff the talisman in attack. There were times when he went through a difficult period and now look at what he is achieving. It is great to see.
"People keep talking about what we did in the 80s and of course it was great but that's 30 years ago and this is a new generation. They are heroes for Northern Ireland now. I know the boys from the 80s still have our wee get-togethers to celebrate reaching major tournaments. And now the current squad have done the same. It's brilliant.
"It's also fantastic for all the lads that they won the group. They will be able to look back on that with real pride and I'm talking about all of the squad, not just the boys who played in the majority of the games."
As for those words of advice for the players relating to the build-up to the tournament, they would do well to heed Nicholl (below with O'Neill), who has been down this road before.
He said: "I've come in as an older head and it's interesting for me to see how players react if they aren't picked when they hoped they would be. They have to take that disappointment, keep battling away and make sure they are in the squad for next year because you never know what can happen.
"I would say to them make sure you're there. It doesn't matter what level you are playing at because we are always watching and hearing about how the players are doing.
"Michael has some massive decisions to make when deciding the 23 players to take so the players have to look after themselves and keep themselves fit and right mentally.
"We won't win Euro 2016, but it is another experience for all these players and they will gain so much out of it and become better players as a result. It is a great challenge for them all and something for our fans to be excited about."