Northern Ireland v Greece: 'I never thought we could qualify'

NI boss Michael O'Neill and Kyle Lafferty celebrate the qualifier win over Greece in Athens
Euro 2016 qualifier: Northern Ireland v Greece
Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Date: Thursday, 8 October Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live & BBC Radio Ulster; text commentary on BBC Sport website

A trademark bullet header from Gareth McAuley, or maybe Steven Davis cracking it into the top corner. Actually, a tap-in or wicked deflection from 40 yards would be perfectly acceptable.

Anything, as long as the ball hits the Greece net on Thursday and the necessary three points are secured to send Northern Ireland on their way to Euro 2016 in France next summer.

Michael O'Neill's team are on the brink of qualifying for a major tournament for the first time in 30 years.

Draws against the Greeks and Finland on Sunday in the final qualifiers would be enough for the Group F leaders, and missing out now is not on the agenda.

Northern Ireland's successful campaign has been built on Kyle Lafferty's seven goals but the big Norwich striker is suspended for the Windsor Park clash.

How O'Neill would love to be able to call on record-scorer David Healy in his prime or the experience of defender John O'Neill, who knows what it takes to get over the line after helping Northern Ireland to the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals.

Here, Healy and O'Neill assess the team's rise under O'Neill and what making the finals would mean for the boys in green.

Former Preston and Leeds striker David Healy celebrates one his 36 goals for Northern Ireland
Former Preston and Leeds striker David Healy scored 36 goals for Northern Ireland

What has Michael O'Neill done to improve Northern Ireland?

David Healy: The players believe in him and have bought into how he wants the team to play. Good results breed confidence and wins early in the campaign have driven the players on to get within touching distance of qualifying.

John O'Neill: Michael has got the team playing in a system which the players feel comfortable in. Everyone knows their job and and players coming into the side slot in seamlessly. The manager has also brought the best out of Kyle Lafferty.

How major a blow is Lafferty's absence against Greece?

DH: Huge - he provides not just goals but all our attacking play goes through him. However, Michael has good alternatives with strikers in top form. Josh Magennis would be favourite to come in although Liam Boyce has been sensational for Ross County.

JO: It's a big disappointment because he is the talisman and his goals have been so crucial in getting NI to the brink of qualification. He leads the line so well and is in wonderful form at international level. I think Magennis will be his replacement - not as mobile as Lafferty but his physical presence will cause the Greeks problems.

Two draws will be enough to qualify - how should NI approach the final two games?

DH: The attitude and style will not change - it will be to go out and get the three points against Greece and not even think about Finland. Why change what has been a successful strategy?

Group F

JO: It's always a risky plan playing for a draw and I think the team will remain positive. Staying patient and composed is key while needing something from the final game in Finland would makes things very difficult.

Are you confident NI will make the finals and how big an achievement would it be?

DH: I'm still 100% confident and I believe it will be done and dusted at Windsor Park on Thursday. During my international career we rarely came close to qualifying so to do it would be a massive achievement. It would lift everyone and be a massive boost for the game here.

JO: I'm a believer in fate and things have just gone NI's way in a few games, similar to our path to qualification for the 1986 World Cup. I can see us scoring against Greece and getting the points. I've been watching NI for the last 15 years while working as a BBC summariser and never thought we could make a major tournament. It would be incredible.

Could NI be victims of their own success, with a top club job on offer for O'Neill?

DH: I work with the under-16s and know Michael has a keen interest in the development of Northern Ireland youth teams. He's happy in the job and sees it as a long-term project, although things can change quickly in this sport.

JO: That's always a possibility and a lot depends on whether we make the finals and if so, how NI fare in France. His stock is high because of this successful qualifying campaign. It's about what club offers he gets and when.

David Healy and John O'Neill were talking to BBC Sport's Alvin McCaig.

Top Stories