Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Greece: Players poised to go down in history with all eyes on Windsor showdown

By Adrian Rutherford

It's our biggest game for almost 30 years and fans from all over the world are desperate to be there.

Greece is the word on the lips of every Northern Ireland football fan ahead of tonight's crunch Euro 2016 qualifier.

A win will see us reach the finals in France - our first major tournament in a generation.

Around 12,000 lucky fans will pack Windsor Park for what could be one of the greatest nights in our sporting history.

The scramble for tickets has seen requests from as far away as Australia, Japan and the United States.

Others have been advertised online for up to 10 times their face value.

When an extra 1,500 tickets went on sale last week, they were snapped up within three minutes.

The Irish FA's phone system crashed as it struggled to cope with demand.

Even players said they had been inundated with pleas from ticketless friends.

It is a stark contrast to the bleak past years. At one stage Northern Ireland went 1,298 minutes without a goal, with games played at a near-deserted Windsor Park.

Now the feel-good factor is back, with Northern Ireland's footballers on the brink of rewriting history.

If they win tonight, it will be the first time we have qualified for a major tournament since 1986.

Team captain Steven Davis was just 18 months old back then, and he believes tonight's game is the biggest of his career.

"It's a long time since Northern Ireland qualified for a major tournament, and never the Euros, so we know we're on the cusp of something special," he said.

In an eve-of-game rallying call, manager Michael O'Neill urged his players to "write their legacy" by ending the near 30-year wait for qualification.

And while fans will party into the wee hours if Northern Ireland win, O'Neill believes an early check-in will keep his players' celebrations under control.

The players might also allow themselves to savour the moment, but with a flight to Helsinki on Friday morning for the final Group F qualifier against Finland, O'Neill has a simple rule to keep things sensible.

"We've told the players if they aren't on the plane to Finland, they won't be on the plane to France, and that is the only sort of curfew we can enforce!" he said with a smile.

"That's really the only stick I can beat them with, to be fair.

"We are on a plane on Friday morning at 10am but it would be lovely to celebrate on Thursday night. If we are successful I am sure the stadium won't empty in a hurry, but at the moment the focus is on the game and you don't think about anything else."

O'Neill, capped 31 times as a player, only made his Northern Ireland debut in 1988 and thus missed out on a major tournament.

He recalls watching the 1982 and 1986 World Cups on television. "I know what it was like in those days and how the whole World Cup thing gripped the country," he added.

Meanwhile, fans have been urged to recreate the famous "Sea of Green" tonight.

The initiative encourages supporters to turn out in green, and the spectacle has provided an iconic backdrop to some of Windsor Park's greatest nights in recent years.

Fans' spokesman Gary McAllister said: "As our team and our country stands on the verge of achieving history, it would be magnificent to see the famous 'Sea of Green' again.

"We'd love to see and hear the most colourful and vocal atmosphere imaginable to help Michael and the players get over the line against Greece."

Belfast Telegraph