The captain of the Northern Ireland team during its last appearance at a World Cup finals has told the current set of players to grab the opportunity to play on the world’s biggest stage with both hands.
Northern Ireland go into tomorrow night’s World Cup play-off first leg against Switzerland as underdogs with the vast majority of bookmakers, but Sammy McIlroy believes team spirit could see the Green and White Army secure a place at Russia 2018.
Mr McIlroy played for Northern Ireland at the World Cup in Spain in 1982 and captained his country at the World Cup in Mexico in 1986.
Ahead of the double header against the Swiss on Thursday and Sunday he had this message for the players: “You may never get this chance again to play at a World Cup, so you need to grasp it with both hands and don’t let anything slip away, or come back into the dressing room after the game and say, ‘I wish I had done a bit better’ because that’s too late then. It’s now or never.”
Of Northern Ireland’s chances of making the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986, he said: “I think we’ve got a fantastic chance. I think it’s important that we take something to Switzerland for the second leg.
“The Swiss are well organised. They have a few skilful players, a few players in the Premiership, but I think with the spirit we have got in the camp we can get the better of them over the two games.
“These are probably the biggest games most of these players have ever played in. We qualified for the Euros outright in the last campaign but a play-off is a totally different scenario.”
The former NI boss, who now works in hospitality with Manchester United, encouraged Michael O’Neill’s players to emulate Billy Bingham’s team of the 80s and also said the fans had a role to play.
“We had a very, very good side in the 80s. We were frightened of no one – a great bunch of lads with a great team spirit. The current side looks to have that same spirit.”
Of the supporters he added: “The crowd, for me, have been the best support in the world. I hope they can get behind the team and frighten Switzerland. A great atmosphere at Windsor Park can intimidate the opposition, there’s no doubt about that.”
Asked how it felt to captain his country at a World Cup finals, Mr McIlroy said: “You can’t get any better, it’s the pinnacle. Obviously we’re not going to win the World Cup but to compete in the biggest tournament in the world is every international player’s dream.
“For Northern Ireland to do it twice in the 80s is fantastic and it was an absolutely marvellous experience. You’re away from home for a long time but you know the nation back home are all behind you.”