George Saville insists Northern Ireland must rediscover their winning mentality or forget about Euro 2020 qualification.
Michael O'Neill's men lost all four of their Nations League clashes against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Austria and their last competitive win was a 2-0 victory at home to the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier in September 2017.
The Euro 2020 qualifying draw pitted them in Group C with heavyweights Germany and the Netherlands along with Estonia and Belarus.
With Northern Ireland kicking off their campaign against Estonia at Windsor Park tomorrow night, and Belarus at the same venue on Sunday evening, back-to-back wins are required to gain badly needed momentum in the group. Midfielder Saville, who made his international debut against Germany in 2017, has stressed the importance of a fast start.
"The quality and performances have been there and getting that winning mentality is important to us now," said the 25-year-old, who became one of Northern Ireland's most expensive players when he joined Middlesbrough from Millwall for a reported eventual fee of £8m.
"As soon as we do that we can build up some momentum, because you know what it's like, once you lose one game you can lose five or six. When you win one you can win five or six, so it's about getting a winning mentality as soon as we can and getting a bit of momentum.
"It's important to start well and we've got two games coming up against the so-called easier opponents, although we know it's going to be tough.
"These two games and the two games in June could set us up nicely."
Surrey-born Saville, who should win his 12th cap against Estonia, accepts the Group C challenge is a daunting one but the early home fixtures against less glamorous rivals are a welcome boost.
“It’s a tough draw, but with the schedule you couldn’t have picked it any better really, if we’re going to be honest,” he added. “Thursday is the first step and it’s important to get off to a good start.
“The results haven’t been good and we’re not going to shy away from that, but the performances were really good in certain games, especially at Windsor Park.
“In the Bosnia game and others we played really well but it’s up to us now. It’s not about just playing well, we need to win matches, starting on Thursday.
“You can play as well as you want, but ultimately now it’s three points we need.”
With Oliver Norwood ruled out of the game for “personal reasons” and Corry Evans doubtful through injury, Saville is expected to perform a key role in the heart of battle.
O’Neill’s confidence in his midfield remains strong but captain marvel Steven Davis’ limited game time at Rangers must be a concern.
Saville admits it’s not perfect preparation for a new campaign but he insists there can be no excuses for any slip-ups.
“It might make a slight difference in fitness levels because playing week in, week out for your clubs will always help you step into the international scene,” he said. “But we’re professional athletes and keeping ourselves in good nick is what we are paid to do, so it’s up to us.
“I’m not sure it’s a huge factor, and people can look into that and look for excuses, but we won’t be looking for excuses.
“I’ve loved every minute of my time with the team. I’ve been here 18 months or so and I’m happy with how things are going.
“Obviously the Nations League was disappointing but the performances were there. But this is where it starts now really and this is where it matters if we want to qualify for the Euros.
“You can put more responsibility on yourself, and to be a top player you need to do that and grab games by the scruff of their neck at times.
“Davo maybe hasn’t been playing as much, but it hasn’t changed the player he is and he’s still had a few minutes.
“That won’t matter too much and he’ll still be the Davo we all know. He’ll turn up for his country and perform the way he has always performed.”
The key word for Northern Ireland this week is belief. After qualifying for Euro 2016 and reaching the play-offs for the World Cup finals last year, a standard has been set and it’s time to reach for the stars again.
“I wasn’t here for the last Euros, but speaking to the boys there was a huge belief and there was a great start to that campaign which pushed the boys through,” added Saville.
“There have been many lows, but a few good highs, and that Euro 2016 campaign is something we can use and help us heading into this one.
“You need that home form to give you a platform, and if we can do that and do the business in the summer, we can set ourselves up nicely for the back end against Germany and Holland.”