Destiny is calling for Northern Ireland as the team stands just two games away from a place at the World Cup finals for only the fourth time in the nation’s history.
The News Letter has spoken to a World Cup matchwinner and fans from all walks of life – and the feeling heading into tonight’s play-off first leg against Switzerland is one of apprehensive optimism.
Gerry Armstrong scored the only goal of the game when Northern Ireland beat hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup. He said the players have the spirit and belief to reach another World Cup, but added nerves would play a part.
“I know how nervous we were before the Israel game (in 1981), and the games leading up to qualifying. The Israel game at Windsor Park qualified us (for the 1982 World Cup) with a 1-0 victory.
“If we can get a 1-0 victory against Switzerland on Thursday I think it could be enough to take us there. We’ve got to try and take something from the home leg – whether it’s a 0-0 draw or a 1-0 victory I’ll take either of those.
“We need to have something to go to Switzerland with. They’re a very good team, but we’re strong at home.
“It means everything to a footballer to play at a World Cup finals. It’s the pinnacle of your career. The players know that.
“I know they’ve played in the European Championships but the World Cup is bigger again. They’ve got the spirit and the belief to do it. It’s just a question of getting the result right on the day. Everybody has got to pull together and be firing on all cylinders.”
Coronation Street star Charlie Lawson – an avid fan of his country – said the supporters have a huge role to play.
“The Swiss are a very nice wee people, so they are. Once they get into Windsor Park those players are going to feel the force of the Green and White Army.
“If you speak to any footballer who’s played there recently they will tell you the same thing, that it’s a pretty scary place to be. I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating, it’s a very positive atmosphere. The fans act as a twelfth man.
“We are on the crest of a wave. We deserve to be where we are right now. Switzerland have a very good record in qualifying, but we will be a formidable foe to them.
“My heart says we’ll nick a win or get a draw at Windsor but if I was a professional punter I wouldn’t be putting my mortgage on that.
“Some of these players were in the wilderness a few years ago. Michael O’Neill has worked wonders. Now the players believe in themselves, they’re confident in and around each other and they know their limitations.”
Orange Order Grand Chaplain Rev John Noble watched Northern Ireland qualify for the World Cups in 1982 and 1986. The 65-year-old hopes glory is beckoning again.
“I was at Windsor in 1981 when we beat Israel to qualify. There was so many people there that night. I actually climbed over the wall that night and got in for free.
“I was at Wembley in 1985 to watch us qualify again. Pat Jennings had an amazing game that night. Hopefully tomorrow will be another step towards that road again.
“They are two difficult games and we need to get a result at home. I think we’ve got what it takes to get through. Michael O’Neill has given the team a real backbone which they didn’t have for many years. We’re difficult to beat, home and away.”
Richard McFerran – originally from Ballyclare – is a member of London Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club. Living in London means the 32-year-old will be able to get direct flights to both play-off games.
“My first game was against the Faroe Islands. We drew 1-1. I’m surprised my dad ever took me back after that.
“I’ve been to all the matches this campaign apart from the first match away to Czech Republic. It was quite close to the Euros and I’d spent quite a lot of money getting to France. I’m regretting it now as it would have meant a full campaign.
“It is going to be two very tough games against the Swiss. I think the atmosphere at Belfast will carry us to maybe a 2-0 win and give us something to defend in Switzerland. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up with penalties.”
Lurgan man Jeff Magee has been to all of Northern Ireland’s game home and away this campaign, for which he credits his understanding wife Julie-Anne. He will be at Windsor Park tonight and will travel to Basel on Sunday, where he hopes NI’s defence can hold firm.
“It’s been an amazing campaign. Given the difficult group, with Germany odds on for top place, getting second place and securing a play-off place was a fantastic achievement.
“The trip to Germany was a good one, but highlight of the campaign for me was Stuarty Dallas scoring the last minute winner in Azerbaijan – a big result in securing second place and the result was the icing on the cake of a great trip.
“Switzerland will be a tough game – but I’d rather be playing them than Italy or Croatia. With our defensive record, a result at home is key – but let’s dare to dream again!”
Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart has not missed a match at Windsor Park for several years, but on Tuesday he took what he described as a ‘mad decision’ to give his ticket away for the game against Switzerland.
“I had a ticket for the match but I took the mad decision to auction the ticket for a 14-year-old girl in Carrick who could really do with the money.
“Megan Fleming is a very brave young lady who will soon be travelling to Turkey for critical surgery on her spine. The money raised from the auctioned ticket will go towards the £15,000 she needs to fund the operation and associated costs.
“It’s the first time I’ve missed a home game in such a long time but it’s for such a good cause I don’t mind watching it on TV.
“I’m usually the eternal pessimist but I’m feeling really positive about this play-off.
“If we can keep a clean sheet tomorrow night it will be worth its weight in gold.”
Millar Farr – sovereign grand master of Royal Black Institution – will be in attendance at Windsor Park tonight. A lifelong fan, he believes the current squad measure up well to their predecessors.
“I’m 75 years of age and I remember even as a wee nipper supporting them. I saw George Best and Pat Jennings play a number of times. We mightn’t have the superstars of that stature now but they are extremely well organised and that counts for a great deal.
“I think Northern Ireland must get a result at home. Their opponents aren’t an easy team by any stretch of the imagination. I wouldn’t be as hopeful of getting a result away.”