Former Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has backed current boss Ian Baraclough and his team to deliver in tonight's crunch Euro 2020 play-off final against Slovakia at Windsor Park.
O'Neill famously took the nation to their first major tournament in three decades when he inspired the players to Euro 2016. In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he has revealed that he feels the Class of 2020 has 'more to offer' than the side of four years ago.
Forever a Northern Ireland football legend, O'Neill went close to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and was in charge for the group stages of this Euro campaign, ensuring that the squad made it through to the play-offs, combining his international role with that of Stoke City boss having been appointed by the Championship outfit last November.
But for Covid-19, the 51-year-old would have managed Northern Ireland in the play-offs, which were originally scheduled for March, but with the pandemic delaying internationals for six months he felt it best to leave and focus on Stoke with Under-21 boss Baraclough replacing him in the senior post.
Since then O'Neill has saved Stoke from relegation and this season is working his magic transforming them into promotion chasers while Northern Ireland, under Baraclough, defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina in a penalty shoot-out following a 1-1 draw in Sarajevo in October to set up tonight's mouthwatering decider at home to Slovakia, with a place at next year's finals up for grabs.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, O'Neill said: "It is very difficult to pick out favourites in any game right now because of the scenario teams are asked to play in but I do think Northern Ireland, if they perform on the night, have enough to go through.
"One of the things I liked about this team was I felt it was at a good age. The team that we took to Euro 2016 was a little bit older. We had more players at the tail end of their careers, players like Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Chris Baird who had done amazingly well.
"I think Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart are better players now because as centre-backs they are at that point where they are almost at their peak. Of course you would love a 28-year-old Steven Davis but he is still playing at a great level and maintains his high levels. When I look at what is around them I think the team has more to offer. There is more pace and energy in the team and that will be a big factor.
"I'm looking forward to it. I thought they played really well in Bosnia. After the Bosnians scored there was that little period when the boys had to stay in the game and their experiences of doing that previously probably helped them, then in the second half they played very well and in extra-time looked more capable of winning the game than Bosnia before excelling in the penalty shoot-out. They have given themselves a real chance of qualifying which is brilliant."
Five years ago O'Neill lifted Northern Ireland to new heights, defeating Greece 3-1 at a packed Windsor Park to seal qualification for the European Championships for the first time.
He said: "This has been a different qualification campaign to Euro 2016. When the 2020 qualifying draw took place and we were in a group with Holland and Germany we knew how hard it would be.
"What we did was give ourselves a chance against Holland. We led in Holland late on before losing 3-1 and drew at home and missed a penalty so we were closer to automatic qualification than people realised. The fact that the team has recovered from that to reach the play-off final says a lot.
"Beating Greece to make it to Euro 2016 was incredible but regardless of how you get to a finals it is massive and I think having players with experience of playing against Greece, in the Euro finals and the World Cup play-off versus Switzerland will help the team.
"I remember when the group draw came out that day in Dublin everyone was quite despondent and yet here we are with a home game against Slovakia to qualify so that is testament to what the boys have done over the campaign and since Ian came in and got through the Bosnia game.
"The most important thing is the continuity. We went to the Euro 2016 finals and were beaten in a World Cup 2018 play-off and now we can get to the Euro finals again. It is very difficult for a small nation to keep that up so to be in the mix for three tournaments in a row is fantastic and if the team does it against Slovakia qualification will be hard-earned and well deserved."
The IFA stand to gain £9m should the team qualify, though O'Neill added: "You don't think about that. It is about getting the opportunity to go to a tournament and not just for the players, the manager and the staff. It's for everyone, including the fans."