x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

After 23 years, Northern Ireland still won't give up

Whereas Poland have qualified for the last two World Cups, their opponents' last taste of a major tournament came in 1986.

Twenty-three years ago, Nigel Worthington's playing career reached its peak when the Sheffield Wednesday left-back represented Northern Ireland in the World Cup in Mexico. Back then Leo Beenhakker was already a much-travelled coach but his managerial career reached its summit when he was appointed by Real Madrid. So 1986 was a memorable year for both. Now the job for Worthington and Beenhakker is to make 2010 equally significant.

The Dutchman's Poland team host Worthington's Northern Ireland at the Slaski Stadium today in Europe's most evenly contested qualifying group. Whereas England, Holland and Spain have impeccable records and Denmark and Germany have dropped only two points apiece, Group Three is a pool where there are five teams who are all capable of finishing first or fifth. The leaders Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic complete the list of contenders: only the minnows of San Marino can be discounted.

Today pits fourth against second - first meet fifth in a derby in Bratislava, where Slovakia host the Czechs - in a pivotal week. That is especially true for Northern Ireland. Whereas Poland have qualified for the last two World Cups, their opponents' last taste of a major tournament came in 1986. Northern Ireland remain the smallest European nation to play in a World Cup (the smallest in the world was Trinidad & Tobago, managed by Beenhakker), yet it is one infused with belief.

The Glasgow Rangers midfielder Steven Davis has spoken of making history. The defender Jonny Evans was eager to postpone ankle surgery in a quest to emulate past greats of both Northern Ireland and Manchester United such as Harry Gregg and Norman Whiteside. As Northern Ireland took a solitary point from their first three fixtures, it is a startling turnaround. They were ranked 124th in the world by Fifa five years ago, when they went 13 games without a goal, and it is a sign of their improvement under first Lawrie Sanchez and now Worthington.

Four successive victories include a 3-2 triumph over Poland in Belfast. The concern now is that only Wednesday's game against Slovakia is at Windsor Park, where England, Spain and Sweden have been beaten in the last four years: thus far, the only away win was against San Marino, which illustrates the scale of their task tonight. "If we can go and keep a clean sheet in Poland, regardless of what we do after that, I would think Windsor will be bouncing when we meet Slovakia," said Worthington. "Three points in Poland would set us up in a very strong position moving into the last two games."

As the group leaders Slovakia still have a game in hand, Northern Ireland will still require a favour from another side. There is a growing sense that the unlikely is becoming possible for a side who have revelled in their status as underdogs. "In the last two years this group of players has got stronger and stronger," added Worthington. This is a comparatively unheralded group, whose strengths are their teamwork, spirit and formidable home form. And, of course, the presence of a man who has outscored Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten and Zinedine Zidane in international football.

David Healy has 35 goals for his country. None of his teammates have more than six, and no other Northern Irishman has topped 13. The Sunderland striker managed that in a single qualifying campaign, setting a record even as Northern Ireland could not reach Euro 2008. That his only goal this time around has come against San Marino suggests his teammates are less reliant on Healy. There would be no better time to end what is, by his international standards, a drought than tonight.