In the 21st century, Northern Ireland have broken records for failing to score, beaten England and Spain thanks to the sharp shooting of David Healy, been booed off the pitch by their own fans, created history, euphoria and joy by qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals and lost out agonisingly in play-offs to reach two other major tournaments.
It has never been dull under Sammy McIlroy, Lawrie Sanchez, Nigel Worthington, Michael O’Neill and current boss Ian Baraclough.
The great Steven Davis has been through most of it, making his international debut in 2005 and inspiring the nation ever since on his way to 128 caps with more to come. In the middle of this World Cup qualifying campaign with a dark horse shot of making it to next year’s finals in Qatar, who better to ask where Northern Ireland are right now than the legendary captain.
“I think we are a work in progress,” says the Rangers midfielder with typical honesty.
In reference to young guns such as Shayne Lavery, Ali McCann, Daniel Ballard and Conor Bradley playing in recent World Cup qualifiers, the 36-year-old adds: “It is good that we have had young players playing in this campaign and gaining experience. They have been in and around it now for a while and the more we have of that the more younger players get used to how the manager wants to do things and the set-up and when you start to get results that gives you belief in what you are doing.”
Results came last month. There was a win in Lithuania and an encouraging home draw versus Switzerland in the World Cup plus a morale boosting friendly success away to Estonia.
In this international window, Baraclough’s side travel to Switzerland and Bulgaria. It’s a huge ask but if they were to win both Northern Ireland would be on course to finish second in their group and earn another play-off.
Davis says: “We are certainly in a period where we are trying to build something again to put ourselves in a position to qualify and hopefully we can go out and get that big scalp that we need against Switzerland to cement that belief within the squad and who knows where that can take us after that.”
Unfortunately injury rules out Blackpool striker Lavery and Preston midfielder Ali McCann for the double header. Davis has been impressed by both.
“Since Ali has come in, he’s been excellent,” said the skipper.
“He has a maturity to his game in terms of his positional play and that’s evident when he is on the pitch. So far every time he has pulled on the jersey he has had a good performance. It was good to see him getting his move (from St Johnstone) and hopefully everything will work out well and he shows everyone down south (at Preston) what he can do.
“Shayne Lavery was brilliant over the course of the last two qualifiers. He ran both defences ragged at times and was a real threat. He has really progressed in a short time from moving across the water and has been playing with confidence at Blackpool and scoring goals.”
Davis has also enjoyed watching 18-year-old right back Conor Bradley, who shone off the bench against Estonia and Switzerland and in the same month became the first Northern Ireland player to feature for Liverpool in a competitive first team fixture since Sammy Smyth in 1954 when he started in a League Cup tie at Norwich.
“I missed the summer trip when Conor first came into the squad but saw him last time and in training and the matches he didn’t look fazed by anything,” said the former Southampton man.
“He looks like he wants to learn as well and seems to have a good head on young shoulders. When he came on against Estonia and Switzerland you could see he had no fear. He wants to go out and play and show what he can do.
“That’s the beauty of young players when they come in. Sometimes they don’t overthink things. They just go out and play with that raw emotion and you can see the quality that Conor has. I’m sure he has a great international career ahead of him.
“He is still very young and is getting a good grounding at Liverpool.
“He is doing well there and is highly regarded at the club having already made his first team debut so it is good for Conor to be getting an opportunity at Liverpool as well.
“It’s a great sign for Northern Ireland that some of our younger players are coming through and making that type of impact.”
Davis remains the standard bearer in the side for young team-mates and not so young. In anyone’s all time Northern Ireland XI he’d be in it. The fans worship the guy and will be overjoyed to hear he continues to savour the international stage.
“I love playing for Northern Ireland and I want to be around and making an impact for as long as possible,” the UK’s most capped male footballer tells the Belfast Telegraph.
“When I feel I can’t do that it will be the time to call it a day but I still feel I have a big part to play and feel we can achieve something.
“I don’t think of my age when I go out to play. If you start to think like that then maybe it puts the writing on the wall a little bit. I just try and go out and do my best.
“Obviously I am coming to the latter stage of my career and I want to try and achieve as much as possible with the time I have left. That’s my thinking.
“It is an exciting time with Northern Ireland but it is so difficult to qualify for major tournaments.
“We know when you put yourself in a position to do that you have to try and maximise it.”