Northern Ireland deserve to be at the World Cup finals, says Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland are one step away from securing their tickets to Russia for the 2018 World Cup finals - and the boss reckons they've already earned the trip.
Only Switzerland stand in their way in next week's play-off matches but after finishing second to World Champions Germany in a stunning Group C qualifying campaign, O'Neill is adamant his players are worthy of securing NI's first finals spot since 1986.
"I think we deserve to be at the World Cup because of the campaign we had in qualification," O’Neill told fifa.com. "It’s obviously very difficult when you’re drawn against Germany in qualifying, but to have finished second in the group we now have the opportunity of getting to the World Cup through the play-off.
"It’s over 30 years since Northern Ireland were last at the World Cup, it would be a fantastic achievement to get there again."
All that won't mean much when world number 11 side Switzerland arrive in Belfast for the first leg next Thursday, November 9. In fact, the Swiss had an equally outstanding route to the play-offs, winning nine of their 10 group matches and pipped to automatic qualification by Portugal on goal difference.
But with the Green and White Army at their backs, O'Neill is hoping that NI won't let their opportunity slip past.
"Windsor Park will play a huge part in whether we can qualify for the finals in Russia,” he said. "The atmosphere there is fantastic, the crowd are extremely behind the team and they'll make it a difficult atmosphere for the opposition."
Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis, at 32, will notch up his 100th cap during the first leg of the play-offs. For him and the likes of Gareth McAuley (37), Aaron Hughes (37), Chris Brunt (32) and even Kyle Lafferty (30), the chance to star at a World Cup may never come knocking again.
"I think for these players to have qualified for EURO 2016 and to go onto the last 16 of the tournament, to then follow that up with qualification to Russia, would be fantastic," O’Neill said. “When they look back on their international careers, they’ll have achieved so much.
"The play-offs will be difficult, but for many of our players this will be the last chance to possibly play at a World Cup. That will be the motivating factor for us to hopefully come through the play-offs."
Northern Ireland have shot up over 100 places in the World Rankings in five years, and O'Neill reckons the reason for such an upturn in fortunes might be more mental than physical.
"We have a very humble squad," said O’Neill. "The Northern Ireland team has a great humility about it and players who have played from a young age together. We have a strong team spirit, a really good work ethic. We have some very good players, but our togetherness is our strength."
Now the question is can the players finish the job and jet off to Russia?
Belfast Telegraph Digital