Northern Ireland are on the cusp of qualifying for a major tournament for the first time in 30 years, and boss Michael O’Neill believes the country “needs” to be in France for Euro 2016 next summer.
Norman Whiteside, Pat Jennings and Sammy McIlroy were some of the last Northern Irishmen to feature in a finals competition at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, but O’Neill’s current crop could end that long hiatus as early as Monday.
Victories over the Faroe Islands and Hungary, coupled with the latter dropping points against Group F leaders Romania on Friday, would assure Northern Ireland of a place in France next summer.
And O’Neill has issued a rallying cry to his squad ahead of the crunch double header in their qualifying campaign, urging them to deliver an historic moment for their nation.
“If we were to manage to maintain our form and secure qualification, I think it would be the first time in history that a pot-five team has qualified,” O’Neill said.
“That gives you an indication of where this team has come to.
“The motivation is there because Northern Ireland needs it. Simple as that. Nothing else.
“We need it as a country and as a group of players, as a group of supporters. We’re not hiding behind that, and we want to deliver it. We need this and I think the players recognise they have the capability to deliver it.”
O’Neill can speak from personal experience, too, having played during the 30-year wilderness before taking the helm in 2011.
He and a raft of other Northern Irishmen never came close to experiencing a summer tournament against Europe or the world’s elite, and O’Neill thinks his current squad recognise they can make an indelible mark on their own careers.
“Obviously the prize is huge and you do think both about the significance of qualification and, if it didn’t go our way, the significance of that also,” he said.
“But within this group of players there’s a hard core of players who recognise that there’s a real opportunity for them to have their international careers significantly remembered.
“There are lot of players who have played down the years for Northern Ireland and not had the chance to go to a major finals, a lot of really good players.
“This is a group of players who have given themselves this opportunity with what they’ve done to date, so I don’t worry that mentally they’ll not be able to handle the situation or the games that lie ahead. They recognise the prize that lies ahead for them and I’ve every confidence.
“The likes of Steven (Davis), Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird, just to name three players alone, have served Northern Ireland now for the best part of 10, 15 years. It would be their reward to get to the finals. It’s that type of player and other senior players around them that have put themselves in this position.”