Belfast Telegraph

This Northern Ireland team can inspire a generation, says Neil Lennon

 

By Graham Luney

Former Northern Ireland international Neil Lennon says Michael O'Neill's heroes are inspiring the next generation of young players, and he's hoping the men in green can book their ticket to Russia.

Switzerland are the final hurdle for O'Neill's men in this week's play-off for a World Cup finals place, with the first leg at Windsor Park tomorrow night and the rematch in Basel on Sunday.

Hibernian boss Lennon won 40 caps from 1994 to 2002, but Northern Ireland were starved of major tournament action since 1986... until that stunning Euro 2016 campaign which ended with a last 16 defeat to Wales in France.

If O'Neill's side can overcome the Swiss it will be the first time a Northern Ireland squad has made it to back-to-back major tournaments, and Lennon says he has considerable admiration for what the former Shamrock Rovers chief has achieved.

"Michael has done unbelievably well with Northern Ireland," said the Lurgan man after being named Ladbrokes Premiership Manager of the Month for October. "He made the Euros and then came out of a very tough group with Germany, Czech Republic and Norway.

"It's unheard of the success Michael is bringing with Northern Ireland and they just have a bit more to do against a very tough Swiss side who performed really well in a tough group with Portugal, finishing on 27 points after winning nine of their 10 matches. It's a decent draw in terms of who they could have got in the play-off but it's still two difficult games ahead, and obviously they will want to take something to Switzerland.

"The home form in the last two campaigns has been phenomenal.

"I think back to my day when I played, and we maybe could have got to a play-off at one stage, but the turnaround that Michael has produced in the players has been remarkable in the last few years.

"I really enjoyed them at the Euros, that was a tremendous achievement, and reaching the last 16 was a major shot in the arm. Getting to the World Cup for the first time since 1986 would be a very special achievement.

"I grew up in the 1980s teams that Billy Bingham had with the likes of Norman Whiteside, Martin O'Neill and Pat Jennings and what these players are doing are inspiring a new generation of players in Northern Ireland, and I just hope we can prevail over the two games now."

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