Belfast Telegraph

Underdog tag can help fire Northern Ireland to World Cup dreamland, says Nicholl


By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland players have the bottle to make it to the World Cup Finals in Russia. That's the view of Michael O'Neill's right hand man Jimmy Nicholl, who has watched the men in green hold their nerve on the big occasion many times.

This week's play-off battles with Switzerland are the ultimate test of the players' mettle and there will be a tense atmosphere at Windsor Park on Thursday night and then in Basel for the second leg on Sunday.

One World Cup dream will be shattered this week and Nicholl is confident the Green and White Army will be celebrating, just as they did when their heroes marched all the way to the knockout stages of Euro 2016.

The Swiss are quietly confident and expect to roll over O'Neill's side but Northern Ireland relish the underdog tag and they certainly know how to bite when the big guns come to town.

"I think back to the Hungary game at Windsor Park, in the Euro qualifier when Kyle Lafferty netted a stoppage time goal in a 1-1 draw," said Nicholl, who won 73 caps.

"We went one behind and Chris Baird was sent off but we struck late to boost our qualification hopes.

"I was pumped up to the eyeballs in that game and it was a big moment on the road to France. The boys had a never-say-die mentality and got their reward.

"The pressure is always there and the boys should be used to it now. It was there when we were drawing 0-0 with San Marino at half-time. People thought we would have a comfortable two or three goal lead by half-time but sometimes that doesn't happen. The players eventually relaxed and got the goals.

"Switzerland just missed out on automatic qualification to Portugal in their last qualifier but they will still be confident going into this one. Both teams in this play-off will be confident but I always feel Northern Ireland should never be over-confident.

"In my mind, it doesn't matter how well we do in qualifying, I want us to stay the underdogs and be written off. Our boys are never arrogant or cocky, they have their feet on the ground but they are hungry and ambitious. I think with that attitude, you always have a chance."

Northern Ireland savoured the Euro 2016 party but a World Cup appearance would spark even more dancing in the streets.

Nicholl is one of the privileged few who has cherished World Cup memories and it's inevitable that when smaller countries like Northern Ireland rub shoulders with the finest international sides on the planet, they savour the experience more than most.

Northern Ireland are aiming to qualify for only the fourth World Cup Finals in their history after the glory days of 1958, 82 and 86 with Nicholl able to reflect on the last two adventures in a major tournament.

"I think when you are a young lad interested in football you don't say 'I want to play in the Euros', you would say 'I want to play in a World Cup'," added Nicholl, who is now Paul Hartley's assistant at Falkirk. "The Euros was a fantastic experience but how can you beat playing for your country on the world stage? Everyone wants to sample that experience and it is huge for any player. I had good times with the squad in the 1980s and now it's these boys' turn to make the most of their opportunity.

"Imagine going to a World Cup. It's a massive achievement for any player, you know the world is watching and you have earned the right to be there. You end up playing against international sides you aren't familiar with and it's a fascinating experience.

"For the players, it could be the time of their lives. In 30 years time this group will be talked about in the same way the 1980s squads are today. They can be history makers."

O'Neill is hoping suspensions don't haunt him as eight players, including captain Steven Davis and defender Jonny Evans, are one booking away from missing the second leg.

"The suspension rule is a terrible one, particularly in a play-off scenario," added Nicholl. "The opposition know that as well so what is to stop them targeting a player knowing a booking will mean he misses the second leg? I think in the qualifying games it's fine but it's harsh on us in the play-offs. Our discipline, however, has been very good and I'm confident that will remain the case.

"It did not matter who we were going to get in the play-offs, it was always going to be a very difficult challenge. They are two huge games and I'm just hoping we can go to Switzerland with a lead and a clean sheet."

Belfast Telegraph

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