West Brom steel bedrock of North's stunning rise
Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30
Northern Ireland's drive towards their first major tournament in 30 years is being forged on a bedrock established in the Black Country.
Michael O'Neill's team are within touching distance of qualification glory with a little help from West Bromwich Albion and Tony Pulis' renowned defensive organisation.
They will face Greece at Windsor Park tomorrow on a mission to secure the three points required to clinch a place in the finals of Euro 2016, and so ensure that their potentially awkward match in Finland on Sunday becomes no more than a dead rubber.
Northern Ireland have conceded only six goals in eight games thanks in part to Albion's Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt - and no Premier League team has managed more clean sheets this year than West Brom.
It is no coincidence according to McAuley, who was six when Northern Ireland beat Spain 2-1 at the 1986 World Cup finals - their last appearance at a major tournament.
"Northern Ireland doesn't have that many players to pick from so, as a group, we've played together for years now and we all know each other really well," he said.
"As a defensive unit, there are a lot of good things that we do with the gaffer (Pulis) that we can translate into international football as well."
McAuley, who will be making his 56th international appearance tomorrow, can still remember the bitter pain of missing out on the European Championship in 2008.
There have been many other low moments over the years - it was only two years ago that a shell-shocked O'Neill was branding the embarrassing defeat against Luxembourg as "pathetic".
This campaign has been an uplifting experience, however, with fortune finally on their side after being drawn in a group without any European superpowers.
McAuley said: "We went to Hungary and won the first game. That gave us a lot of confidence and then we beat the Faroes and Greece. To have maximum points from the first three games set us on our way and we've managed to keep it going."
There will be 11,700 people packed into Windsor Park tomorrow and nerves are already fraying due to the absence of leading scorer Kyle Lafferty, who is one of three players who miss out through suspension.
It would still require a stunning capitulation for O'Neill and his players to miss out now, though. Greece are in disarray, bottom of the table, beneath even the Faroe Islands. (© Daily Telegraph, London)