Striker Kyle Lafferty has billed Monday night’s clash with Hungary as the “biggest game” of the Northern Ireland players’ careers as they bid to turn their Euro 2016 dream into reality.
The prospect of a trip to France next summer is now firmly on the horizon for Michael O’Neill’s Group F table-toppers following Friday night’s 3-1 win in the Faroe Islands, and victory over the Hungarians at Windsor Park will hand them a berth in a major international tournament for the first time in 30 years.
The likes of Jonny Evans, who has three English top-flight winners’ medals to his credit, and Steven Davis, a starter in the 2008 UEFA Cup final, may have been on grand stages before but Lafferty believes the chance to create a landmark for their country is even more significant.
“The players know that this is the biggest game of their careers - win and we create history,” the Norwich forward said.
“We want to do it so much for the fans and they deserve it. It should be a very special night at Windsor.”
Northern Ireland have been absent for every tournament since the 1986 World Cup and are yet to appear at a European Championship finals.
So to be this close to realising their goal at this stage of the qualifiers is a factor Lafferty admits he can scarcely believe.
“I could never have imagined that we would be in this position with just three games to go - five wins, a draw and just one defeat,” he added.
“This could be the first time Northern Ireland have ever qualified for a Euro finals. It really is some achievement.
“I’m excited, I know everyone else is excited and we can’t wait to make sure we get across the finish line.”
The 27-year-old has struck six goals in the group stages - only Poland’s Robert Lewandowski has managed more across the continent - but conceded his lack of match fitness and the possibility of a suspension tempered his efforts somewhat against the Faroes in Torshavn.
However, given the prize at stake when the Hungarians visit the Northern Irish capital, Lafferty has no plans to hold back for his country’s next fixture.
“I’m delighted to score another goal but the most important thing is we got the three points,” he admitted.
“If I’m honest though I think my performance showed that I wasn’t match fit. My lack of game time really showed. But come Monday night I want to make more of a contribution.
“I know that I have to help the team go out and get three points. It was constantly in my mind that I was one booking away from a suspension so I couldn’t play my natural game.
“But on Monday night I will not be thinking about the yellow card, I’ll be giving it my absolute all.
“I know that if we win then we qualify for France so I’m really looking forward to Monday now.”