Scotland will face a confident Northern Ireland, warns Craigan

Stuart McCall and Stephen Craigan
Stephen Craigan played under Stuart McCall for two years at Motherwell

Scotland will meet a Northern Ireland team buoyed by confidence when they meet later this month, asserts former Motherwell captain Stephen Craigan.

Michael O'Neill's side visit Hampden to play a friendly on 25 March, a warm-up for both nations ahead of crucial European qualifiers four days later.

"There's a little bit of belief," said Craigan, whose national team have made a strong start in Group F qualifying.

"Normally we're scrapping for fifth place but we're second behind Romania."

Northern Ireland have won three of their four qualifying ties to date, with away wins in Hungary and Greece either side of a home success against the Faroe Islands. However, they lost 2-0 to Romania in their most recent match in mid-November.

Scotland, meanwhile, are third in Group D. They, like Germany and the Republic of Ireland, are on seven points after four matches, three behind unbeaten leaders Poland.

Northern Ireland's remaining Euro 2016 Group F qualifiers
Finland (home)Sunday, 29 March 2015
Romania (home)Saturday, 13 June 2015
Faroe Islands (away)Friday, 4 September 2015
Hungary (home)Monday, 7 September 2015
Greece (home)Thursday, 8 October 2015
Finland (away)Sunday, 11 October 2015

Craigan, Northern Ireland's Under-19s coach, is relishing the prospect of a home match against Finland on the Sunday after the game in Glasgow.

"If we win that, it takes us to 12 points," he said.

"Michael has said 18 points might qualify you in second place so we'd be six points away from where we'd like to be. It's all to play for. It's exciting.

"We haven't qualified for a major tournament since 1986. A lot of our players weren't born in '86. It's time for our country to push on.

"Nine points from 12 is really good but it's what we do in the rest of the qualifiers that will count."

Craigan, who joked that having a Scottish wife meant he'd be happiest if both countries made it to the Euro 2016 finals, stressed the importance of O'Neill and his Scotland counterpart Gordon Strachan to the teams' renewed optimism.

"It's taken Michael two years to get where he is," he said.

"Michael had a tough opening two-and-a-half or three years. He didn't win many games and he had to try to convince players to stay with him.

"Suddenly we win three out of four and everybody thinks he's the best in the world.

Scotland's remaining Euro 2016 Group D qualifiers
Gibraltar (home)Sunday, 29 March 2015
Republic of Ireland (away)Saturday, 13 June 2015
Georgia (away)Friday, 4 September 2015
Germany (home)Monday, 7 September 2015
Poland (home)Thursday, 8 October 2015
Gibraltar (away)Sunday, 11 October 2015

"Scotland are in their group - beat Gibraltar (on 29 March) and you've got 10 points.

"It's a really good position to be in. They now have to kick on and try and get a consistency of results over the next four or five games.

"Gordon's experience has been key to it - getting players onside, getting the buy-in to what he's trying to do, having relationships with players, because you don't see them for five or six months at a time.

"Sometimes players just want a phone call to ask how they're getting on.

"But ultimately it's winning games. When Gordon came in he started winning games again and the players started to trust in him and the fans started to believe in him."

Craigan views the friendly with Scotland as the ideal preparation, in terms of proximity and cost and with so many of the Northern Irish team being based in the UK.

The defender's manager for the last two years of his lengthy Motherwell career was Stuart McCall, now a Scotland coach.

With prices cut, he is expecting a sizeable crowd at Hampden to witness two well-matched teams.

He said: "I think it will be a competitive game. Northern Ireland are on the crest of a wave. We'll have a decent atmosphere so I'm looking forward to it.

"I was speaking to Michael O'Neill the other week. They'll probably use it like we'll use it, in that we'll probably not use all the boys that will play against Gibraltar but there will certainly be a good sprinkling of them.

"Not everyone is playing first team at the moment - we might have two or three that aren't playing for their clubs that will play for us."

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