| 18.2°C Dublin

North find reward in total focus

Close

Michael O’Neill and his counterpart today, Mixu Paatelainen, go back a long way. They were team-mates at Dundee United

Michael O’Neill and his counterpart today, Mixu Paatelainen, go back a long way. They were team-mates at Dundee United

Getty Images

Michael O’Neill and his counterpart today, Mixu Paatelainen, go back a long way. They were team-mates at Dundee United

Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifier against Finland this evening is significant for more than one reason - but the fact that victory tonight would be the national side's biggest result for 30 years is unquestionable.

In a reflection of society in these parts, football remains a rare pursuit on the sabbath and Windsor Park will be the scene of protests from religious groups aggrieved about an international fixture taking place, despite it being a UEFA calendar ruling and not at any whim of the IFA.

While there will be disenchantment from some quarters, there is the promise of a soul-enriching Sunday service on the field. This could be a genuine day of action, with victory for Michael O'Neill twisting flights of fancy into an irresistible force, France the ultimate destination. As Group F settles, few had imagined nine points from four outings would have been achieved. Nevertheless, with landmark triumphs in Hungary and Greece, and a home win over the Faroe Islands, this could be Northern Ireland's finest hour since their last main tournament participation - the Mexico '86 World Cup finals, reached courtesy of a goalless draw at Wembley in November 1985. Today, it seems incongruous that a plain, under-reconstruction Belfast venue is the cradle, rather than the graveyard, of ambition, for a side who occasionally threaten but have often fizzled out, particularly in O'Neill's early days when he went 10 games before his first win.

This was, until recently, the kind of fixture that troubled. Nights of magical conquest against Spain, Russia and England were inevitably tempered by baffling disappointments against Azerbaijan, Israel and Luxembourg.

O'Neill's response was to tighten up much the same players, demanding 90 minutes of full concentration. Where previously the team would have shipped late goals, the reverse is now occurring. Kyle Lafferty's winner in Budapest was fine reward for absolute focus.

O'Neill suggests that previous Northern Irish squads would not have had the chutzpah to visit places like Hungary and Greece and expect to win. Why should there now be a retreat to restrictive beliefs after such audacious wins?

Second in the group, the best news for the manager is an established side. With such a small pool, Northern Ireland cannot absorb the loss of key men. It was no coincidence that the sole defeat in this campaign, away to the group leaders, Romania, occurred minus captain, Steven Davis. The Southampton midfielder's deftness of touch was much missed.

O'Neill and his counterpart today, Mixu Paatelainen, go back a long way. They were team-mates at Dundee United and, later, part of the O'Neill apprenticeship was a period assisting the likeable Finn at Cowdenbeath.

O'Neill rested a host of regulars for the midweek 1-0 friendly defeat away to Scotland and Northern Ireland are at full strength. Having handled the pressure of going to Greece a few months ago and building on that momentum, the squad, also containing streetwise figures, 'keeper Roy Carroll and defender Aaron Hughes, understand what is at stake, especially with four out of the remaining six ties being on home soil.

Observer

Sunday Indo Sport