What a week it’s been for the Northern Ireland football team. The Green and White Army took a huge step towards their first World Cup finals since the memorable Mexico 1986 journey, while simultaneously edging closer to a successive major tournament for the first time in their history. The records continue to tumble in this remarkable campaign, and none more so than on Monday night, where Michael O’Neill’s men won five matches in a row for the first time in their entire history with a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic.
O’Neill surmised the situation perfectly when claiming that his side are undoubtedly the team to avoid come the playoff draw, where Northern Ireland will more than likely be one of the four highest-ranked second-placed teams. The October FIFA rankings will decide which of these teams – a dreaded list potentially comprising Portugal, Italy, and the Netherlands – will be kept apart in the draw, and Northern Ireland’s 23rd place can only rise.
With an almost unthinkable 19 points from a possible 24, with seven clean sheets – more than any other European team – along with just two goals conceded against world champions Germany, it truly is a fantastic time for the country. Further inconceivable statistics include the fact that Northern Ireland maintain their fantastic home record of not having lost a competitive home fixture since losing to Portugal in September 2013, while not conceding in a home qualifier since that memorable 3-1 victory over Greece in October 2015. In fact, since exactly a year before that famous night in Belfast, Northern Ireland have played 13 games, winning ten, drawing two and losing one, thus boasting a phenomenal 77% win rate.
These stats and figures prove that this nation has come on leaps and bounds as they continue to climb the world rankings, but they also represent a changing in the times. Not long before O’Neill’s appointment, this was a country scraping wins against minnows like themselves while losing out to almost every side that visited the now-formidable Windsor Park. These results now bring with them a sense of pride, but future fixtures now carry a huge responsibility and expectation, where the loyal fans travel in their thousands and expect nothing more than a top, top performance, which is thankfully what they receive from the determined squad of passionate players.
Monday’s victory in itself epitomized all we need to know about the lesser nation with greater desire than most. The fact that the last three meetings with the Czech Republic failed to yield a goal proves just how far Northern Ireland have progressed under O’Neill in such a short period of time, while additionally the visitors enjoyed the better of the possession, shots and corners, yet simply couldn’t break down a resilient home nation.
There is no better example than this inspiring squad when they play football – a team game – to show that heart and determination can overcome all the talent in the world, yet the mighty defence deserves an incomparable amount of credit for their performances throughout the campaign. The incredible efforts of Aaron Hughes shouldn’t go unnoticed, while Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt even contributed with the crucial goals on Monday to add to their impressive displays at the back. It really is a tremendous squad who continue to fight for each other on and off the pitch, driven by a manager that, like his players, deserves every single bit of credit that more often than not fails to arrive.
When Michael O’Neill took over the reins of the almost-impossible task of guiding this nation to an elusive major tournament, nobody would have believed that he could have done such an immense job. With players like Craig Cathcart and Gareth McAuley still to return to stiffen up an already stern defence, and with Liam Boyce’s unfortunate injury keeping him sidelined for the time being, the side can only improve, and will undoubtedly give their all in their remaining two ties with Germany and Norway in October.
The Green and White Army will be eagerly awaiting their playoff opponent when the time comes, and after much scrutiny for qualifying from a so-called ‘easy’ group for the 2016 European Championships, finishing second in this tricky Group C for the 2018 World Cup should prove those doubters wrong that this really is a side to be reckoned with.