Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Romania: This side can do what Bingham's boys couldn't - Pat Jennings

By Stuart McKinley

Legendary Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings believes that the current squad can not only earn themselves the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Billy Bingham's class of the 1980s, but actually achieve what that team couldn't.

Although Jennings, Jimmy Nicholl, Sammy McIlroy, Gerry Armstrong and co became the first side in Northern Ireland's history to qualify for back-to-back World Cups, in between they fell agonisingly short of making it to the European Championship finals in France - losing out to West Germany on goal difference, despite still being the only team to ever beat them home and away in a qualifying campaign.

Thirty-two years later and ironically the scenario is exactly the same. The French will again play host to Europe's elite and Northern Ireland are in with a very realistic chance of being part of it.

The difference is that back in 1984 only the winners qualified from the five-team group, whereas now the top two make it with the third-placed team getting a play-off.

Oh how Jennings wishes it was like that in his day.

"In our time we never qualified for the European Championships. We had two unbelievable results when we beat Germany home and away, but we still didn't qualify. That's what you're up against," said Jennings.

Jennings celebrated his 70th birthday yesterday. The date also marked 29 years since Northern Ireland's last match at a major tournament, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Brazil during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

That was Jennings' final game in a long and illustrious career.

On the way to those World Cup finals, the man who remains a hero with fans of both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur produced an inspired performance to help Northern Ireland to a 1-0 win in Romania.

Now the Romanians stand between Michael O'Neill's team and top spot in their Euro 2016 qualifying group at Windsor Park tonight.

Whatever happens in Belfast, or in the other games as Hungary travel to Finland and the Faroe Islands host Greece, Northern Ireland will at least be in second place in the group with four games to go and qualification will be in their hands.

"I hope they get something out of this game because that would put them in a great position," said Jennings.

"It would be nice to finally do it. They have made a fantastic start, so why not this time?

"They are in a great position and if they can get anything out of Saturday, I think we will be well on our way."

That win in Bucharest back in 1985 is among the most famous in Northern Ireland's history as it played a big part in qualifying for the World Cup the following summer and Jennings can see many similarities in the current squad as they try to match that result - and the achievement.

"The game we had out there was a really difficult game," said Jennings.

"Jimmy Quinn scored and we won 1-0. I made six or seven saves throughout the match and we had a couple cleared off the line. It was just one of those days.

"This team is similar to us in that they all seem to be battling for each other.

"Whatever team he sends out, that's how they are.

"They give 100 per cent and you can't ask for any more than that.

"They've got a really good team spirit."

Belfast Telegraph