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Memories of magical Euro 2016 qualification night are inspiring Northern Ireland ahead of Slovakia clash, says Craig Cathcart

Greece memories spurring defender in bid for back-to-back Euros

Craig Cathcart has suggested that the magical memories of qualifying for Euro 2016 will drive Northern Ireland on when they face Slovakia in Thursday night's Euro 2020 play-off final at Windsor Park.

The Watford defender was as solid as a rock five years ago when Northern Ireland defeated Greece 3-1 in Belfast to reach the nation's first tournament in 30 years and feels the players who have been there and done it can draw on those positive experiences this time around.

"I have fond memories of that game. I remember us going ahead and feeling comfortable and confident that we were going to do the job,'' said Cathcart.

"After the game it was great, everyone was on the pitch together and there was that feeling of knowing we had done it.

"We had a game in Finland after that and managed to get a draw, but I don't know how we did it because you can imagine what the celebrations were like after the Greece game.

"It was just the whole feeling of qualifying and everyone was ecstatic, so to get the chance to experience that feeling again, I'm sure it will drive on a lot of the lads in the squad.

"I think it's helpful that we have been in this situation before. We have a lot of experience in the squad and we've also got a good mix of young players as well, so we have a good balance.

"Being there and having done it before, as a group of older players we want those younger players to have the chance to experience it as well and I think everyone in the camp is pulling in the right direction.''


Craig Cathcart (no.20) about to join in the celebrations after Northern Ireland beat Greece to qualify for Euro 2016

Craig Cathcart (no.20) about to join in the celebrations after Northern Ireland beat Greece to qualify for Euro 2016

Craig Cathcart (no.20) about to join in the celebrations after Northern Ireland beat Greece to qualify for Euro 2016

Cathcart remains as hungry as ever.

"I want to experience it again. It was probably the most enjoyable year of my career with it being my first year in the Premier League with Watford and then going straight into the Euros,'' recalled the centre-back whose dependable partnership with Jonny Evans will be vital versus Slovakia.

"It was an amazing year and to top it off with the Euros was special. I'm as hungry as I was back then to do it. I think that's the general consensus in the squad, everyone wants to get back there."

Quizzed on whether qualifying for next year's finals would represent a bigger achievement than Euro 2016, the former Blackpool ace said: ''I would definitely put it on a par, it's never easy. If you look at the group we had, it might make it a better achievement. We had a real difficult group this time round on paper, but you know it would be on a par.

"It would be a great experience to go there and do it and for the younger players, it would be great for them to go to a major tournament. We know how big the game is on Thursday. It's basically a cup final and we know it will be a difficult match against a good Slovakia team, but we have every confidence that if we go out and do our jobs, we can get the result we want."

The last time Northern Ireland were involved in a play-off they were beaten 1-0 on aggregate over two legs by Switzerland with a place at the 2018 World Cup at stake. A 1-0 first leg home defeat was crucial with Cathcart missing out through injury.

"I was at the game. I was injured and doing my rehab in Dublin, so I managed to get up. I was in the dressing room with the lads. It was disappointing and they were deflated,'' said the 31-year-old.

"The second leg, I remember how unlucky we were not to get the result that night. We don't want to make that mistake.

"I think that motivated the whole campaign really from the start. We knew we were so close to getting to a World Cup so we wanted to start the Euro campaign as well as we could and that's what we ended up doing.

"The motivation came from that but that was a long time ago now and the team has changed since then. I don't think we can look back on that too much, we have to focus on this game more than anything.''

Cathcart says nothing will be left to chance with penalties practiced as was the case before the shoot-out semi success against Bosnia & Herzegovina last month and he feels the 1,060 home fans in the stadium can provide a boost for the men wearing green.

One man who won't be there is injured Blackburn midfielder Corry Evans, who was struck down on Saturday.

''He's had bad luck with injuries over the past year or so. I'm sure he will be gutted,'' said Cathcart. "Corry will be a big miss because any time there's a big game he normally plays. I'm gutted he's not here but we'll try to get the job done and make sure he's ready for the competition.

''He never lets you down. He's been brilliant for Northern Ireland over the years but we have a big squad for that reason.

"Whoever comes in will have to do a job and hopefully we can get there for him.''

Belfast Telegraph