ALL roads lead to Windsor Park tonight as Northern Ireland are on the cusp of one of their greatest ever sporting achievements (kick off 7.45 pm).
A win over Hungary this evening in south Belfast will put Northern Ireland into next summer’s Euro 2016 competition in France – the first time the Green and White Army has qualified for a major tournament since the Mexico ’86 World Cup final.
And manager Michael O’Neill says he and his players want to reward their fans for their support through thick and thin in the intervening years.
It is not just the players who have spent the intervening years dreaming of a day when landmark wins would be trumped by qualification for a major finals.
The devoted ranks of the Northern Ireland support have had their share of unlikely successes to celebrate, with the likes of Spain, Sweden and Russia all coming undone in Belfast.
But with a spot at their first major tournament on the horizon , O’Neill is sure their faith has not been misplaced.
“The supporters have been fantastic, even when things weren’t going well,” he said.
“I got a lot of support in the early days when things were difficult and that was huge for me.
“You have to continue believing you are doing the right thing, and that isn’t easy when results are going against you.
“I just hope the supporters stick with the team – simple as that. Believe in us, and I think they do.
“The players want to deliver for them. We know the sense of anticipation because of the amount of people coming up to talk to us about France.
“I think it will be a fantastic tournament to be at, and I think it would be fitting for our fans to be there.”
But manager O’Neill is refusing to consider that fate has anything to do with it.
All-time record goalscorer David Healy’s winner claimed Northern Ireland a famous victory over England and made September 7, 2005 a red letter day in the country’s sporting history.
Ten years on from that famous night, Northern Ireland can guarantee their place at Euro 2016 in France by defeating Hungary at Windsor Park on Monday.
If they are able to do just that, it would secure their first appearance at the competition and end a 30-year exile from tournament football.
Northern Ireland’s current squad shows three survivors from that win over England – captain Steven Davis, defender Aaron Hughes and midfielder Chris Baird – but although O’Neill does not see the timing of the match as an act of fate, he feels the time is right for his side to return to the top table.
“I don’t believe in things like that. But I do think that [beating England] was a great night and great to witness,” O’Neill said.
“Steven played that night, along with Aaron and Chris, and that’s all part of their international education, and it moulds them into international players.
“It is experiences like the England game that will stand us in good stead.”