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As the Republic struggles, northern neighbours power towards becoming immortal
A win for Michael O’Neill’s side tonight assures them of qualification for a major tournament for the first time in three decades.

THEY’VE WAITED A long time for this.

Tonight, Northern Ireland can qualify for a first major tournament in three decades. A win against Greece at Windsor Park will secure Michael O’Neill’s side a place in France next summer.

And as the Republic of Ireland have frustrated with pedestrian performances and disappointing results, their northern neighbours have enjoyed a thrill-ride, reveling in their succession of early group wins, refusing to buckle under the pressure and staying the course when many expected them to suffer through stormy seas and jump ship when things got too rough.

But such a successful campaign has its foundations in the team’s first two away assignments – in Budapest and Paraeus.

In their first qualifier against Hungary, it was all going according to script with Northern Ireland, as always, were losing. With ten minutes left though, Kyle Lafferty crossed for Niall McGinn to tap home before Lafferty himself grabbed an 88th-minute winner.

Incredibly, when the full-time whistle went, it was Northern Ireland’s first away win since a victory over Slovenia in 2010.

Afterwards, O’Neill spoke about the importance of building on the momentum and the, admittedly, unexpected three points.

We would have been happy with a point so we are delighted with the three, but now we have to build on that. We have to maximise these three points by taking three against the Faroes in our next match.”

They did – beating the minnows 2-0 in Belfast. But it was in Greece when the fanciful talk of Euro 2016 qualification stopped sounding so unrealistic.

Against the 2004 European champions and a side that had made it to the last sixteen of the 2014 World Cup, Northern Ireland were superb, and tore their opponents to pieces on the counter-attack.

EURO 2016 / YouTube

They began brightly and opened the scoring through Jamie Ward but it was after the break when O’Neill’s charges really began to shine. Lafferty had already hit the woodwork after a magnificent run before he conjured a superb second goal – slaloming past one beleaguered Greek challenge and tucking the ball neatly to the net.

It was the perfect away performance. And Northern Ireland were calm, composed and in control.

There’s a spirit to this bunch, as evidenced in their two fixtures against Hungary – late comebacks in both games that secured four, precious points.

There’s a belief too, personified by Lafferty. Much-maligned and oft-forgotten before this campaign, he’s been relentless and blossomed under O’Neill’s man-management.

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Soccer - UEFA Euro 2016 - Qualifying - Group F - Faroe Islands v Northern Ireland - Torsvollur John Walton / PA Wire/Press Association Images Kyle Lafferty has benefitted enormously from the man-management of Michael O'Neill. John Walton / PA Wire/Press Association Images / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Compare this to last year and his time with Palermo in Italy. When he was eventually sold, the club’s owner Maurizio Zamparini blasted the attacker.

Lafferty is sold as a result of a precise request from my coach Beppe Iachini. He (Lafferty) is an out-of-control womaniser, an Irishman without rules. He is someone who disappears for a week and goes on the hunt for women in Milan. He has two families with six children, he never trains and he’s completely off the rails.

On the field he’s a great player because he gave us everything he had and more. In terms of his behaviour, however, he is uncontrollable. My coach told me he cannot sort this player out out, so he has to go.”

Everything is different now. Lafferty has scored seven goals in eight appearances in qualifying – second only to Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller.

Last weekend, he made his first ever Premier League appearance when coming on as a substitute for Cameron Jerome in Norwich’s 2-1 defeat to Leicester. He’s played himself back into contention and that’s a result of his international displays.

He’s missing for tonight’s clash against the Greeks – suspended along with Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin while Jonny Evans is injured.

Still, with so much at stake and with the home crowd set to create a raucous atmosphere at Windsor Park, it seems inevitable for the feel-good story to get the ending it deserves.

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