Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland players have guts, now they can take us to the World Cup: O'Neill

It took guts for the players to turn it around, now make history: O'Neill

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill is just 180 minutes away from either the proudest moment of his career or his biggest disappointment. Football throws up these scenarios when you are brave enough to chase a dream as big as this one.

Northern Ireland haven't qualified for a World Cup since 1985 and back to back major tournaments have remained out of reach... until now.

The pressure on the players and management in these two play-off battles with Switzerland is intense but there's also an equal measure of excitement and self-belief.

After their Euro 2016 heroics Northern Ireland, powered on by the vociferous Green and White Army, wear the underdog tag with pride and after tasting the big time they want more of it.

For all the players, not just those on the brink of retirement, this opportunity to grace the world stage may never come around again so they've got to give it everything and make history.

Switzerland will be at Windsor Park this evening confident of progressing to the finals and the tournament experience their players have savoured make them favourites to keep their dreams alive, but their opponents specialise in knocking down heavyweights.

And O'Neill is very aware of what a World Cup Finals appearance will mean to the fans, many of whom have seen the light after living through dark days.

"I think it is very important," said O'Neill. "We saw the benefit here in Belfast and throughout the country during the qualification for France and then at the finals. You see what it did here to the country, having 10-15,000 people at fanzones watching games.

"Those are things we haven't seen here in Northern Ireland. Back in 1982 and '86 we didn't have things like fanzones, so it brought everyone together and it was phenomenal support.

"We want to try and replicate that and the players have done fantastically well to get this far.

"There are eight countries left in Europe and we are the smallest going into the play-offs, and we have everything to play for. I see in the squad an opportunity that they don't want to waste.

"When I came in we weren't starting from a great position and it wasn't an overnight fix, it never will be for a small country.

"The players deserve enormous credit because as much as people say 'the manager, the coach turned it around', the players had to turn it round themselves. You can get into a habit of things being poor and losing and that mindset - or you can change it. It takes guts to go out there and change it and the players did that. That's something that we hang on to.

"The good thing we have now, when you've been through the experiences that Jonny (Evans) and Steven Davis have been through, you don't want to go back to that. That's all the motivation you need to maintain it at the level it's at for us to progress as we did, to get to the (Euro) finals, to get to the last 16, and to now be in a World Cup play-off. The players don't want to let that go. Jonny played a lot of international football, he's going to play a lot more, and I'm sure he wants to play it at this level."

As well as providing his players with all the information they need on the Switzerland players, O'Neill has also been using motivational videos to inspire his men.

"It's just something we have done with the players, it's not new, we have done it from the off when I came in and when I took the job I wanted the players to feel a strong identity in playing for Northern Ireland, a strong pride, and sometimes we had to show that to them through videos," he added.

"At that time the stadium wasn't as impressive as it is now but we have a great atmosphere and the motivation is high anyway. It's another layer of preparation and if it helps one player or makes him feel better going into the game it will be worthwhile."

Switzerland are tricky opponents in any circumstances but getting the better of them over two legs is an even more daunting task.

"To win nine games and miss out in automatic qualification is I'm sure not a particularly pleasant situation for a coach or group of players to be in," added O'Neill. Their game against Portugal was almost a play-off game and they are now in one with us but they have been very consistent,"

"Their strength is in the collective like us, they have a lot of good players, we know obviously of (Granit) Xhaka, (Xherdan) Shaqiri, (Haris) Seferovic. We have done a lot of work recognising their attacking threat well.

"They were in the last 16 of the Euros and World Cup. They have a lot of tournament experience as well but we must do everything within our power to try and get to the finals."

N Ireland vs Switzerland

World Cup Play-Off First Leg

Windsor Park, Tonight, 7.45pm

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