Players are thriving off O'Neill's trust, says Hateley
Ex-England ace is sure Green and White Army will be hitting Russia
This is the almost indescribable 'magic hour' for Northern Ireland. And these fascinating times, deftly cultivated by manager Michael O'Neill's much-heralded club mentality, can only grow to greater success.
That is the firm conviction of Rangers legend and former England striker Mark Hateley, whose career was garnished with a distinctly cosmopolitan flavour. He knows what it takes to thrive when big occasions call for club and country.
Hateley was part of an elite unit of England stars at the 1986 World Cup, including Gary Lineker, Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins. The Mexico experience was an achievement helped considerably thanks to his winning goal against Northern Ireland during the qualifiers. Of which, more later.
Like many observers, Hateley has spied this current, impressive World Cup qualification sequence by Northern Ireland with fascination. And he is absolutely sure the core cohesion within the squad will lead all the way to Russia 2018.
"What is happening now with Northern Ireland is a fantastic story," said Hateley, in an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph.
"The thing that is working so well for Michael is that he has seven or more players who go straight into the side. That brings a club-type atmosphere which is why I think they will qualify.
"I expect that every week Michael prays all his players stay fit, whereas England chop and change. The level of Premier League football England's players are used to brings an added strain too. Michael doesn't want a scramble ahead of big games and it's clear both he and (assistant) Jimmy Nicholl are enjoying the moment.
"Steven Davis is the bricks and mortar of the team.
"He's a good man and player, and what you probably have is that Michael will go to him, giving him special responsibilities - then you see him rising.
"Michael gives the Northern Ireland players real responsibility, he trusts them and both he and Jimmy Nic are good talkers. They make things work and when you have a limited pool to rely on, players know their jobs better. This can actually bring an extra 25% or so out of players and you can see it with the team's progress."
The best coaches tend to be lauded for their man-management ability and Hateley, who won 32 England caps between 1984 and 1992, also notes similarities between O'Neill and both Walter Smith and Arsene Wenger, who he played for at both Rangers and Monaco respectively.
With just two goals conceded in Group C, Hateley is not the first to ascribe a certain measure of Northern Ireland's surge down to O'Neill's successful promotion of an esprit du corps, fast becoming the envy of Europe.
"The Northern Ireland players thrive with the trust Michael gives them," he explained. "That's something Scotland, for example, haven't quite got yet when you look at their scenario of not having qualified for a major tournament for so long. They don't have the magic formula of Northern Ireland."
Having reached the last-16 of Euro 2016 and now possible qualification for a first World Cup in over 30 years, the country is, naturally, immersed in unquestionably heady days.
England are on course to qualify for the Russia finals yet, as a nation, they demand absolute achievement. These bloated ambitions, however, are inevitably damaging when it comes to the crunch. On the other hand, Hateley knows Northern Ireland - for the moment - are at an advantage.
"There is always pressure from the English media when it comes to the national team," he said. "At the moment it's probably worse because they have a young side. Look at France drawing at home to Luxembourg. Yes, it was disappointing for France, but can you imagine the reaction if that happened to England?
"Northern Ireland don't have that pressure. To be honest, they probably only have around one per cent of the kind of pressure England deal with. This can change though, and once a country starts reaching two or three major tournaments in succession then questions start and expectations grow."
Hateley, who works as a Rangers club ambassador, has been a guest of Linfield at Windsor Park for games in recent years ("I really enjoy it; I love to go and watch football anywhere").
There are, additionally, fond recollections for the former AC Milan forward of his playing experiences at the National Stadium. England, under Bobby Robson, defeated Northern Ireland 1-0 in a 1986 World Cup qualifier, memorable for one piece of Hateley insolence.
"I can't believe I actually scored with my right foot past Pat Jennings' big hands," he laughed. "I guess that was the time I was really flying for England and on a goal rush, so it was a tough but great night for us. I remember it well.
"I'm hoping to go over to Belfast for the game against Germany. Northern Ireland are very capable of upsetting them the way things are going, and I am saying that as a neutral.
"This is Northern Ireland's magic hour. The players are enjoying themselves and they simply have to play each game as if it's their last. I'm sure Michael is telling them the same thing. No regrets."