Northern Ireland v Switzerland: Windsor Park key to O’Neill’s Irish continuing meteoric rise

Leeds United's Stuart Dallas celebrates scoring Northern Ireland's first goal against Azerbaijan during the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying, Group C match at the Tofik Bakhramov Stadium, Baku. (Picture: Tim Goode/PA Wire)

THE foundations of Windsor Park are clearly made from the very best granite these days.

Several seemingly well-heeled international visitors have all perished at the inhospitable Belfast venue over the past decade and a half to harken back to those famous days of the early to mid-eighties under Billy Bingham – when Northern Ireland qualified for two successive World Cups.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill during training at Windsor Park, Belfast (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

Another addition will hopefully arrive this evening in Switzerland, who arrive for a qualifying play-off first leg, with the return in Basel on Sunday.

Previously, Spain, England, Poland and the Czech Republic and – several others besides – have left the city with the equivalent of their tails between their legs, with Fortress Windsor Park having served ‘Norn Iron’ infinitely well, more especially in recent times.

Home form has proved the bedrock during the country’s last two qualifying campaigns for major competitions when they have lost just once.

That defeat arrived at the hands of world champions Germany last month – their first in a competitive home match since they lost 4-2 to Portugal in September 2013.

To quality for a World Cup on the back of the Euros would be massive. It would be huge for such a small country. Let’s hope we can do it.

Bradford City and Northern Ireland’s Adam Thompson

Pretty much guaranteed a second placed World Cup Group F finish before that meeting with Germany anyway, the real business recommences tonight against the Swiss as Michael O’Neill’s side seek to take a giant stride towards their first appearance at a world finals since 1986.

A wall of noise, 16,000 commissioned flags and a corridor lined with photographs of euphoric Northern Ireland supporters will greet the Swiss as the hosts seek another special European night on home soil.

Yorkshire interest is restricted to Leeds United midfielder Stuart Dallas, although former Bradford City defender, Sheffield-born Rory McArdle, is also in the squad.

Another centre-half capped by Northern Ireland and currently at Valley Parade on loan, is defender Adam Thompson.

Northern Ireland international Adam Thompson playing for Bradford City against Rotherham United on Tuesday night. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

The 25-year-old may have missed out, but will be fervently rooting for the Green and White Army from across the water.

Given what has gone before, he justifiably sees no reason why O’Neill’s side cannot rise to the big occasion once again.

Thompson said: “Any team we got was going to be tough. We were unseeded and that is how it is. It could have been a lot worse, and that is no disrespect to Switzlerand.

“Italy were the one every team in our half of the draw wanted to avoided. Mind, Switzerland have been a team in form so it will be tough.

“But we have beaten the Czech Republic, who are a similar side to the Swiss. We also beat Norway in what was a tough group so we will be confident.

“The first game being at Windsor Park is a boost, as we want to get a good result and push on from there.”

Compared to his international counterparts, O’Neill may be picking from one of the smallest pools of talent in Europe, but he has quickly proved a consummate master at maximizing what he has at his disposal.

Under the assiduous command of O’Neill – surely destined for a plum post when he decides to turn his hand back to club management – Northern Ireland have developed a successful club mentality and pragmatic game plan which plays to their strengths, and has given them a very real chance of qualifying for successive major tournaments for the first time.

Their progress has arrived at a fair rate of knots. In September, Northern Ireland rose up to 20th place in the FIFA rankings – their highest ever position. Five years ago, they were 129th.

Thompson, capped twice, said: “The manager has us playing in a way that we all know. We all know our jobs and what our strengths are, and we play to them

“We are not a team who makes 1,000 passes every game. We are solid, our defence is very good. We have a solid base and then try to nick a goal and are deadly at set-pieces.

“To qualify for a World Cup on the back of the Euros would be massive. It would be huge for such a small country. Let’s hope we can do it.”

Jonny Evans is one of those who remembers the dark days.

The 65-cap West Brom defender, whose brother Corry will also likely start against the Swiss, showed his softer side when he cried following the win over Ukraine at last summer’s European Championships in France, when Northern Ireland reached the last 16 before being knocked out of the competition by Wales.

Representing his country is still something that chokes up Evans, and his emotions are frequently stirred by O’Neill’s motivational tactics.

“I still get emotional; it is a weird thing,” said Evans.

“Every time we come to an international, Michael gives us these motivational videos at various times during the week and you feel yourself getting emotional.

“Playing for your country does that to you.

“We have all come through a lot together as a team, and you get those emotions.”

Veteran defender Aaron Hughes (calf) trained yesterday and O’Neill said that both he and Paddy McNair, who is only just back from a long-term knee injury, are in contention to feature in the first leg at Windsor Park tonight.

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