Belfast Telegraph

Believe and achieve: Northern Ireland legends backing current crop to earn World Cup place


By Graham Luney and Adam McKendry

Switzerland are the last hurdle Northern Ireland must overcome to reach the World Cup finals in Russia next summer.

The last time our country graced the World stage was at the finals in Mexico under legendary manager Billy Bingham, but now Michael O'Neill's men are on the brink of ending 32 years of hurt.

All they have to do is conquer the Swiss over two legs, the first one at Windsor Park on Thursday, November 9 and the reunion in Basel on Sunday, November 12.

We asked former Northern Ireland internationals: can our boys handle the pressure and steer us to our fourth finals, after Sweden in 1958, Spain in 1982 and Mexico in 1986?

Pat Jennings (119 caps)

I'm a bit disappointed we are at home first because at Windsor Park we usually do what is required, but away goals could be vital so let's keep it tight at Windsor and score out there.

If we can get a good result at Windsor, perhaps a win and clean sheet, we will have a great chance of getting through. We have been brilliant defensively and I'm confident the boys can frustrate the Swiss.

It's an exciting climax to the qualifying campaign and brings back memories of our games on the way to the 1986 World Cup finals. We started with a 1-0 defeat in Finland but fought back and finished with a 1-0 win in Romania and then the famous scoreless draw with England at Wembley. Few people would have put any money on us digging out a result there but we've been good underdogs over the years. The current team has been involved in big games and will hold their nerve. Michael will have the team well drilled and the players will have belief. If they didn't have it then they wouldn't be here.

Sammy McIlroy (88 caps)

Switzerland had a great group stage, they got nine wins and they only needed a point from their last game to qualify for the finals but they were beaten by Portugal. They're a very workmanlike side but they don't have any real superstars. Stoke's Xherdan Shaqiri, the winger, he's the closest they've got. But I think we have a great chance, we have a great team spirit and togetherness. It's a shame the second leg isn't at Windsor Park because it would have been great to potentially qualify in front of our home fans, so hopefully we'll get a good result at Windsor in the first leg to hang onto in Basel, not that I think we'll necessarily be hanging on. Realistically, if the players need any motivation to get up for a game like this then they shouldn't be there.

I do think we'll do it. The pressure is firmly on Switzerland, after such a good qualifying campaign everyone expects them to beat Northern Ireland but I think with our team spirit and with Michael O'Neill leading us we can win this.

Optimistic: Sammy McIlroy

Nigel Worthington (66 caps)

The key is to make sure we have a chance come the second leg. This squad has a great togetherness, the same mentality we had in the 1980s and with that spirit they can do it. It's a wonderful opportunity for the players and they should relish it. Whoever believes and delivers over the two matches will win. It's two Cup finals but we've shown over the years that hard work is rewarded.

Billy Hamilton (41 caps)

It's vitally important we do the job in the first leg and come away with something.

I don't feel confidence will be dented by the two defeats to Germany and Norway. Our objective was to finish behind Germany in Group C and we have achieved that. It's been a brilliant effort by everyone because there was never a real chance we would finish above the Germans.

Losing to Germany was expected and we knew we had qualified before the Norway game. The players have delivered in big pressure situations before so I'm confident we can do it again.

Northern Ireland legend Billy Hamilton believes Michael O’Neill’s side can conquer the Danes

Stuart Elliott (39 caps)

I think this is a great draw for us and I think it's given us the best chance of qualifying. All the teams we could have drawn are good sides, but we've managed to avoid Italy and Croatia which, for me, is the biggest thing.

I would have preferred the second leg to have been at Windsor Park but I know Michael O'Neill will be telling his players to go out and put a score on them that we can defend in the second leg.

The thing is, as good as their qualifying results were, Switzerland aren't Italy or Croatia. Of course I think we'll qualify, we have a great defensive record from the group stages and there's nobody we can't beat at Windsor Park.

Tommy Wright (31 caps)

Switzerland will be formidable opponents and their Fifa ranking and qualification record tells you that. It seems a favourable draw as we have avoided Italy and Croatia, but it will still be a very tough challenge. I think it would be a huge bonus if we can keep a clean sheet in the first leg at Windsor Park.

It's a high stakes game but I don't have any worries about the boys handling the pressure.

They are used to it and have played in massive games in this campaign and in the Euro 2016 qualifiers and also in France when Gareth McAuley scored the opener against Ukraine.

There is always pressure in international football, you are playing for your country. I think if we had not qualified for the Euros there would be more uncertainty and fear but we should be confident.

Saint Johnstone manager and former Northern Ireland goalkeeper Tommy Wright

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