Belfast Telegraph

World Cup star: Michael O’Neill will lead Northern Ireland to Euro 2016

By Steven Beacom

Former Northern Ireland World Cup star David Campbell believes Michael O'Neill's current crop of players will bridge a 30 year gap and become national heroes by qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals.

Campbell was part of the last Northern Ireland squad to play in a major championships, making his competitive debut in the memorable 3-0 defeat to Brazil in the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

That was the final international for goalkeeping great Pat Jennings and almost three decades on, it remains Northern Ireland's last game in the glamour stages of a big tournament.

Former Nottingham Forest star Campbell is convinced, however, that Roy Carroll, Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty and co. can follow in the footsteps of big Pat, Sammy McIlroy and Billy Hamilton and take Northern Ireland to the promised land.

They are well placed to do so having won three out of their first four Euro 2016 group games, leaving them in second spot with six matches left, four of which are at Windsor Park. The top two in the table automatically qualify for the finals in France and should O'Neill's team win at home to Finland next Sunday and versus Romania in June they will almost be there.

Campbell says the feelgood factor in the country would be incredible, bringing back memories of 1986.

Now based in England, the 49-year-old was back home yesterday at the launch of the Belfast Film Festival to talk about the film Shooting for Socrates, which will be premiered at the Waterfront Hall on April 24 as part of the Festival.

Campbell is the inspiration behind the movie co-written by renowned Belfast playwright Marie Jones and director James Erskine.

It tells the story of Northern Ireland's incredible journey to the 1986 World Cup finals and that match against a brilliant Brazil side, including iconic midfielder Socrates and how an east Belfast father and son got caught up in the football frenzy sweeping the country at the time.

Campbell is the perfect man to be involved in the project.

He's an infectious character, filled with enthusiasm and ideas. When talking about his life and football career he has more gripping tales than JK Rowling!

A winner of 10 caps, the Eglinton native has never forgotten his Ulster roots and takes great pride in the fact that today's Northern Ireland's team could finally be about to join the elite in a major tournament again.

"Michael, his staff and the team deserve so much credit for the great start we have made to the campaign," says Campbell.

"The beauty about it is that qualification is in our hands and I really believe we can do it now.

"It would be amazing for Michael, the players, our fans and Northern Ireland as a whole. We would have a new set of heroes... and a whole new generation would have these footballers from their own country to look up to.

"As was proved in 1982 and 1986 you can achieve great things through sport and bring people together. This team can do that and achieve something very special.

"For the movie we filmed some scenes at Windsor Park and it is great that most of our remaining matches in the group are at home. Under the lights and when the mist comes in Windsor is one special place and with the atmosphere our fans generate there, it'll play a huge part for us in terms of qualifying.

"I want to see the current team make history, just like the boys did when Northern Ireland reached the World Cup in 1982 and 1986, and 1958 before that."

Campbell has great respect for Northern Ireland boss O'Neill and tells a story to illustrate why.

He says: "Last year I wanted to meet Michael to tell him about the film and said to him about meeting at one of the stadiums in the north west of England where I'm based.

"I suggested Anfield, Old Trafford or Goodison Park and he said to me we could meet at Fleetwood because we wanted to go and watch a game there to look at a couple of Northern Ireland players.

"That shows the type of man he is, never leaving a stone unturned. He is willing to go that extra mile, and clearly it is working for Northern Ireland.

"Bringing in Jimmy Nicholl as his assistant manager is a brilliant move because he is such a fantastic character and will be terrific for the team.

"In the Brazil match Jimmy was playing right back and I was just in front of him. He was great to me in that game and has been ever since. I could say that about all the lads. We'll always have a special bond on the back of being together in Mexico all those years ago."

Northern Ireland's 1986 squad: Pat Jennings, Jimmy Nicholl, Mal Donaghy, John O'Neill, Alan McDonald, David McCreery, Steve Penney, Sammy McIlroy, Jimmy Quinn, Norman Whiteside, Ian Stewart, Jim Platt, Philip Hughes, Gerry Armstrong, Nigel Worthington, Paul Ramsey, Colin Clarke, John McClelland, Billy Hamilton, Bernard McNally, David Campbell, Mark Caughey.

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