Belfast Telegraph

The spirit that foiled England and carried us to Mexico can lay path to Russia, say Northern Ireland heroes

 

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland's 1986 World Cup heroes have said the class of 2017 can take inspiration from the side that held England 0-0 at Wembley to qualify for the tournament in Mexico.

Michael O'Neill's side are potentially two games away from a dream appearance in the finals next summer in Russia, and it would be Northern Ireland's first taste of the world stage in 32 years.

A play-off battle awaits the men in green next month and it will be a supreme test of nerve and character, but the squad that savoured their taste of the big time at the Euro 2016 finals in France are hungry for more major tournament action.

On November 13, 1985, Billy Bingham's side needed a draw to make the finals against a star-studded England side at Wembley, and an incredible display of spirit and passion, along with some world-class shot-stopping from goalkeeper Pat Jennings, accomplished an unlikely mission.

One of the most memorable moments in Northern Ireland football history is the late Alan McDonald's post-match interview when he said: "Anyone that says that's a fix can come and see me..."

A sensational defensive performance frustrated an England side that included Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle, captain Ray Wilkins, Kerry Dixon and Gary Lineker. O'Neill's men have a golden chance to create more history and, if they can reproduce the spirit that frustrated Bobby Robson's side in front of more than 70,000 fans, then they will be Moscow bound.

Former Manchester United favourite Sammy McIlroy, who was a proud captain that famous night, said: "In the England game we were up against it and few people gave us any hope, but we gave it 100 per cent and Northern Ireland teams have shown over the years that anything is possible if they give it everything.

"You need a bit of luck too, and we enjoyed some of that at Wembley, but there was a great spirit and camaraderie in the team as well as determination, and I can see similar qualities in Michael's team.

"It all depends who we get in the play-offs. We could be handed a tough task but we can be sure the players will be fired up and well prepared for it.

"Michael and the lads have shown how strong and fearless they are and I'm sure they will relish the challenge.

"But I think they've got to forget about the opposition for now and grasp the opportunity that is in front of them and realise how hard they have worked to get in this position. They have so much big game experience and intelligence now both from qualifcation and a major tournament.

"I've no doubt they can finish the job but the luck of the draw will help."

Former Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington, who was a 72nd minute substitute at Wembley, said: "What we had was more a club mentality than an international side and when you have that spirit and togetherness you can achieve your goal.

"We had a great camaraderie, and Northern Ireland teams need that to be successful. You've got to stick together and fight for everything like we did at Wembley. We are at our best when people write us off but everyone has a huge desire to win. We all remember the late Alan McDonald saying afterwards it wasn't a fix and he was right, we had to earn it and it was a real team effort.

"Now it's down to the two games, and we must keep the play-off alive after the first game and really go for it. For a lot of the players this opportunity won't come around again."

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