Belfast Telegraph

Draw Denmark and the GAWA can still dare to dream, says Northern Ireland legend

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland legend Billy Hamilton says Michael O'Neill's men have earned the 'luck of the draw' and hopes Denmark will be coming to Windsor Park in the play-offs to reach the World Cup finals.

There is one more obstacle to overcome before the Green and White Army can set off on the road to Russia for the tournament next summer but it's a potentially daunting one with Switzerland, Italy, Croatia or the Danes providing the opposition.

O'Neill's side, the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Greece are unseeded for today's draw which will be made in Zurich around 1pm.

Denmark beat Montenegro and drew with Romania in their last two World Cup qualifiers and they have moved above Northern Ireland in the Fifa rankings.

The Danes - who have jumped up seven places in the standings to 19th while O'Neill's side have fallen three places to 23rd - are Hamilton's preferred choice in the draw, and the stakes are high for so many reasons.

With Scotland now searching for a successor to Gordon Strachan, Scottish FA chiefs could make a move for the Northern Ireland boss if the dream dies after the next two matches scheduled for between November 9-14.

And there is also the possibility that a club will table an offer for the 48-year-old, encouraging him to bring this particular international fairytale to a close.

"I don't like the look of Italy or Croatia and my choice would be Denmark," said Hamilton, who featured for Northern Ireland at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, the latter tournament in Mexico our last taste of the biggest sporting event on the planet.

"It's going to be very difficult, you don't have bad teams left at this stage of the qualifying process but I think we will have a better chance of beating Denmark.

"I think Michael and his players deserve the luck of the draw. They were in a group with Germany, and they were never going to top it, but they've achieved their objective and through hard work and a little fortune we can get to Russia.

"But you've got to question what will happen if we don't make it to the World Cup finals. Is there a danger we could lose Michael? I can understand Scotland looking to bring him in as the jobs are similar, but I'm not convinced Michael would take it because it would be very difficult to create even better memories than from this adventure with Northern Ireland. He's from Northern Ireland, has really enjoyed and embraced the challenge and the Scotland job would be too similar a challenge.

"I'm also not sure there would be a much bigger financial reward with it.

"It's perhaps more likely that a club could tempt him, and it would be hard for him to turn down a good club in the Premiership or Championship in England."

While O'Neill remains in charge of Northern Ireland, a first World Cup finals appearance in 32 years remains a real possibility and Hamilton believes the former Shamrock Rovers chief has the intelligence and tactical nous to see the job through.

"This is when Michael can really come into his own," added the ex-Burnley ace. "I have so much respect for him, the way he has gathered detailed information on opponents and made sure the team and all the players know exactly what they need to do to win a game.

"His teams are set up in the right way and I have every faith he will come up with a master plan to beat another top side in the play-offs. It's going to be trickier against Italy, Croatia or Switzerland but I know the players will be prepared and ready to give it everything they have."

Today's draw will also determine the order of the home and away clashes - and Hamilton hopes Northern Ireland will be hitting the road first.

"I think we need to have the second game at Windsor because then you know exactly what you need to do and we've shown before at Windsor how strong we can be," added Hamilton, who won 42 caps.

"Away from home we could get a draw and we have shown how strong we can be defensively, and at Windsor we can have a fighting chance of winning. Obviously if we are 2-0 down from the first leg we will need to go for it but hopefully we won't have a huge mountain to climb after the opener."

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