Belfast Telegraph

Glory days will keep rolling, says McIlroy

Ex-skipper believes O'Neill's men can build on France adventure and dream of emulating his World Cup finals sides of '82 and '86

Northern Ireland can enjoy the perfect Czech bounce and get their World Cup qualifying campaign off to a flying start.

That's the view of Sammy McIlroy, who was part of the golden 1982 World Cup finals story and captained the side four years later in Mexico.

The former Northern Ireland boss also knows how tough it can be to get a positive result in the Czech Republic but while Michael O'Neill's side are now packing a punch on the international stage, Pavel Vrba's men don't inject the same fear in opponents as classy Czech sides of yesteryear.

Group C also includes World champions Germany, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino and with only the winner securing automatic qualification for Russia 2018, Northern Ireland have their work cut out.

But this underdog can bite and no one expected O'Neill to mastermind a Euro 2016 miracle which climaxed with a place in the last 16 in France.

Defeat in Prague on Sunday would threaten to burst the bubble before it even takes flight, however former Manchester United ace McIlroy is confident another glorious chapter can be written.

"After getting that taste of a major tournament they will want more - that's 100 per cent the case," said McIlroy (below) who won 88 caps. "With the fantastic fans behind them they can put together another strong campaign and they should be confident of grabbing a runners-up spot.

"I can remember going to the Czech Republic as manager in 2001 and the atmosphere was incredible. They brought on Milan Baros in the 64th minute and he went on to score. They won 3-1 with Phil Mulryne scoring for us but they scored in the 87th and 89th minutes which is what good teams do.

"It is a difficult early test but they aren't as strong as they used to be many years ago. It's the first game of the campaign and a victory would send out a big statement.

"It is a tough group, I think everyone recognises that, but what is important is that people know what this Northern Ireland team is capable of. If any team wants to beat us they are going to have to play well. Our performances in the Euro qualifiers and at the finals underlined that.

"All the teams are really focused at the start and anxious to get off to a good start as it can leave you in a healthy position deeper into the campaign. We've got San Marino, Germany and Azerbaijan next so it's an exciting and challenging start.

"With only the team which finishes top of the group automatically qualifying it is a tough group, without a doubt, but the boys will not fear anyone and they are right."

O'Neill pointed to the solitary retirement of Chris Baird as evidence of soaring self-belief in the camp. After topping their Euro 2016 qualifying group the players have already climbed one mountain so why not hit new heights?

With players like Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Aaron Hughes remaining committed to the cause, there is a feeling among the seasoned performers that World Cup qualification is within their grasp.

"With only the one retirement in Bairdy that is fantastic news for Michael (O'Neill) and it shows the belief and hunger that exists within the squad," said former Morecambe boss McIlroy.

"The guys are full of confidence and after progressing to a European Championships they will fancy a crack at a World Cup.

"It's a case of let's keep it going and win more matches and see where it takes us. The good thing from Michael's perspective is that he already has a winning formula and he doesn't need to make many changes to the team. The boys are on a good run and when that happens it breeds confidence."

One man overlooked for the Czech Republic clash was Linfield goalkeeper Roy Carroll. With the Fermanagh man 38-years-old, O'Neill has drafted in Hartlepool's Trevor Carson, who along with Alan Mannus will compete with Norwich stopper Michael McGovern for the No.1 jersey.

"With the goalkeeping situation Michael is looking to the future," added McIlroy. "Roy Carroll has been a great servant for Northern Ireland but perhaps his time is over and there are other options there that the manager needs to look at.

"Michael holds the jersey while Alan Mannus and Trevor Carson are good options. Roy has fallen down the pecking order and he will be understandably disappointed."

McIlroy, who helped Northern Ireland win the final Home Nations Championship in 1984, is also surprised that O'Neill is still the man leading the charge going into the qualifiers.

"Perhaps a club has come in for Michael but he has stood firm," suggested the former Stoke City midfielder. "There's always the possibility that the enquiry didn't interest him. He's got a fantastic job and he's doing a fantastic job.

"Clubs are going to notice his achievements but it would take an incredible offer to tempt Michael."

Belfast Telegraph


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