Craig Cathcart clocked up every minute of Northern Ireland’s landmark EURO 2016 campaign before injury left the Watford defender on the international sidelines since that final whistle against Wales in France.
Now Cathcart is hoping his seven-month road to international recovery from last August’s groin problem will end with his first steps on the road to Russia by lining out on March 26 against Norway.
The centre-back’s influence - in terms of tactical options and overall value - was emphasised by manager Michael O’Neill following confirmation of a return to the Northern Ireland panel.
“We haven’t had him for the four games,” said O’Neill. “We saw in the summer how important Craig has been for us.
“It has been a difficult season for him, because he came back and had the operation quite early in the season.
“It has been a bit stop-start for him, I know he has been playing in and out at times, playing at right-back.
“Certainly Craig is a player I much prefer in the squad than out and it’s a big boost to have him back.
“When I look back at my time in charge, it’s very rare we’ve had Craig, Jonny (Evans), Gareth (McAuley) and Aaron (Hughes) fit and available at the same time.
“Four really experienced centre-backs.
“With Aaron’s situation playing in the Indian Super League, it was tricky with what we played.
“Do we play three at the back, as we did in France in some of the games?
“When you don’t have Craig available, or Jonny or Gareth, it forces your hand a little bit.
“What he has shown in the past two years is the fact he is a really established Premier League player and a top international player as well.”
Corry Evans is also working back from injury and into O’Neill’s plans - with the Norway squad providing an international recall for Linfield’s Roy Carroll.
northern ireland: Roy Carroll, Michael McGovern, Alan Mannus, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt, Craig Cathcart, Conor McLaughlin, Lee Hodgson, Ryan McLaughlin, Tom Flanagan, Steven Davis, Niall McGinn, Oliver Norwood, Corry Evans, Jamie Ward, Stuart Dallas, Paul Paton, Matthew Lund, Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis, Conor Washington, Liam Boyce.