Belfast Telegraph

Laffing all the way to the finals

By Steven Beacom

September 7, 2005: Northern Ireland 1-0 England. September 7, 2015: Northern Ireland qualify for the Euro 2016 finals.

You gotta love September 7, don't you?

Okay, maybe I'm jumping the gun a bit here, but surely you feel it too.

This one is written in the stars.

It's as if the whole campaign has been building up to this.

It's a date with destiny exactly 10 years after David Healy had the people of Northern Ireland dancing on the streets following his winning goal against England at Windsor Park.

Should Michael O'Neill's side beat Hungary at Windsor on Monday night, thousands upon thousands of Northern Ireland fans will be dancing all the way to France.

Northern Ireland have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

Northern Ireland have never qualified for the European Championships, yet here we are after a 3-1 victory over the Faroe Islands and a 0-0 draw between Hungary and Romania in Budapest, standing on the brink of history.

O'Neill and his players have done an outstanding job.

They really have. Credit to every single one of them who've been in the squad since this qualification process began a year ago.

From the giant of man - in every sense - Gareth McAuley, who scored with two headers last night, to Kyle Lafferty, now with six goals in the campaign after netting in the Faroes.

From experienced captain Steven Davis in midfield to newcomer Conor McLaughlin at the back.

The job is not finished yet, but they'll get it done.

Believe me. Written in the stars!

And when O'Neill and his players step out at Windsor on Monday night they will know just how much their efforts and inspiration mean to this country.

O'Neill was right on the eve of the game in the Faroe Islands when he said Northern Ireland needed qualification... for the players, for the fans and for the people.

Thirty years is a long time...and in that period let's be honest, while Healy provided us all with some magical moments, there were plenty of desperately disappointing days too.

Some of them arrived in the last World Cup qualifying campaign when Northern Ireland lost away to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

Now they are beating all in front of them, topping the Group F table in the process.

O'Neill's management has been magnificent.

Like a respected general his troops look to his every lead when going into battle.

He tells them the gameplan and they follow it to the letter.

The players trust this manager because he has shown trust in them.

Look at the way he backed Jonny Evans (below) when he was having a tough time at Manchester United.

Look at how Lafferty, whose international future was questioned in the last campaign, has responded to the encouraging words from the manager.

Northern Ireland is a happy camp. Players are smiling, laughing and joking in training and the team hotel.

They are enjoying turning up and turning out for Northern Ireland. A few years ago they were enduring the experience, those who turned up that is.

Last night showed how far this side has come, showing patience and character to win.

After McAuley's opener from Oliver Norwood's inviting delivery, the Faroes hit back to level following a Stuart Dallas error - his first since coming into O'Neill's plans.

Other Northern Ireland teams would have gone under at that stage. Not this one.

Helped by a second half red card for Faroes goalscorer Joan Simun Edmundsson, the visitors showed maturity to steady themselves and then go for the throat in the final quarter with McAuley and Lafferty netting vital goals to secure maximum points.

Northern Ireland are so close they can almost touch France.

They will get there on September 7. No better date. Come on Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph