Northern Ireland bridge 30-year gap by sealing Euro qualification

By Richard PetrieBBC Sport NI at Windsor Park
Northern Ireland players take the acclaim of their supporters after beating Greece 3-1 at Windsor Park
Northern Ireland players take the acclaim of their supporters after beating Greece 3-1 at Windsor Park

"Good times never seemed so good". So goes a line from Neil Diamond's 'Sweet Caroline', one of the Northern Ireland fans' favourite anthems on match nights at Windsor Park.

And those lyrics were never so apt as on Thursday night when Michael O'Neill's men ended years of not-so-near-misses by restoring pride to the green shirt and finally securing their country's qualification for a major tournament, three decades after gracing the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

To 15 January, 1958, 18 November 1981 and 13 November 1985, we can now add 8 October, 2015.

All red letter days when Northern Ireland supporters celebrated clinching a place at the top table of one of the showpiece events in international football - on this occasion their first appearance at a European Championship achieved at the 14th attempt.

Windsor Park celebrates

The Irish Football Association could have filled the stadium at least four times over for the potentially decisive encounter against underperforming Group F top seeds Greece.

But in the event, 11,700 lucky supporters can say they were there in the partially reconstructed ground to witness a historic night of drama and emotion that will live long in the memory, one which saw Northern Ireland make their dream of taking part in the Euro 2016 finals in France become a reality by beating the Greeks 3-1.

The atmosphere had been rocking from the outset and the self-styled 'Green and White Army' were in full voice, going through their full repertoire as cautious optimism gave way to relief and finally to ecstasy.

Euro 2016 qualifiers: Northern Ireland's historic night

It was one of those nights when no-one wanted to leave - one lap of honour was followed by another, but eventually the prolonged celebrations on the pitch and in the stands following the final whistle spilled onto the streets as the party got into full swing around Belfast and beyond.

The interim 30 years since Billy Bingham led his charges on to the global stage have been epitomised by hope more than expectation - goal droughts, long periods without a win, failed campaigns and managerial changes, punctuated by some gloriously memorable nights, inspired by record goalscorer David Healy in his pomp.

Now O'Neill's squad can assuredly take their place in history, heroes to be revered in the same manner as the legendary names of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups - Pat Jennings, Norman Whiteside, Gerry Armstrong et al.

A chance to showcase their talent in front of millions awaits, an opportunity to create iconic moments of their own, in the spirit of Armstrong's dramatic winning goal against hosts Spain in 1982.

Fortunes transformed

For Northern Ireland's long-suffering fans, the remarkable transformation in the fortunes of the national team has been as welcome as it has been unexpected.

The statistics in the run-up to this latest bid to qualify for the Euros told their own story - two wins in 31 matches prior to the start of the campaign, four wins from 39 competitive games.

Issues off the field, such as the controversy surrounding the Fifa ruling that those holding an Irish passport could declare for either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, played their part in sapping morale.

The nation's Fifa world ranking plummeted to an all-time low of 129 in September 2012 and one victory from 10 games in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup offered little by way of hope.

Despite the number of countries to be represented at the Euro finals rising from 16 to 24, and a seemingly favourable draw, expectations were still low as the proportion of players turning out regularly in the top flight of English football continued to diminish.

Josh Magennis celebrates with manager Michael O'Neill after scoring his side's second goal in the 3-1 win against Greece
Josh Magennis celebrates with manager Michael O'Neill after scoring his side's second goal in the 3-1 win against Greece

The story of the campaign

When the draw was made, there was a degree of disappointment at failing to land any high profile 'glamour' games against the top nations, while inconsistency and a persistent capacity to under-perform against the so-called 'lesser nations' had proved to be a major stumbling block on so many occasions in the past.

However, an unlikely last-gasp victory away to Hungary in their Group F opener, closely followed by further triumphs over the Faroe Islands and a Greece team seemingly in disarray, offered up the first indication that qualification may be more than a pipe dream.

A defeat on the road against Romania did little to dampen the new-found mood of optimism and a success against Finland on home soil in March saw confidence and expectation grow to the extent that hopes of securing a play-off place by finishing third had turned into a realistic ambition of automatic qualification.

A goalless draw with the Romanians consolidated a promising position, then a win in the Faroe Islands and a dramatic draw against the Hungarians saw O'Neill's side sit proudly at the top of the pool.

Victory over Greece saw O'Neill's men get over the line in style to seal what must rank among the country's greatest ever sporting feats.

With Germany among their group opponents for qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals, progress in that competition could prove more challenging, but for now, all eyes are on the draw for the Euros on 12 December.

The 'Green and White Army' are preparing to descend on France. Roll on June 2016.

Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifying campaignGoalscorers
7 September 2014 - Hungary 1 Northern Ireland 2McGinn, Lafferty
11 October 2014 - Northern Ireland 2 Faroe Islands 0McAuley, Lafferty
14 October 2014 - Greece 0 Northern Ireland 2Ward, Lafferty
14 November 2014 - Romania 2 Northern Ireland 0
29 March 2015 - Northern Ireland 2 Finland 1Lafferty 2
13 June 2015 - Northern Ireland 0 Romania 0
4 September 2015 - Faroe Islands 1 Northern Ireland 3McAuley 2, Lafferty
7 September 2015 - Northern Ireland 1 Hungary 1Lafferty
8 October 2015 - Northern Ireland 3 Greece 1Davis 2, Magennis
11 October 2015 - Finland 1 Northern Ireland 1Cathcart