European Championships Qualifier
Northern Ireland v Greece
Windsor Park, 7.45pm
Live on Sky Sports 5
Northern Ireland again on the brink. It’s a headline that’s been written a few times down the decades but rarely can it have been done so with such happy anticipation.
Northern Ireland are again on the verge of qualification for next summer’s European Championships and if they beat either Greece tonight in Belfast, or Finland in Helsinki on Sunday – or get two draws – then Michael O’Neill will lead his players to France.
It has been an unexpected adventure in Group F and Greece, for one country, must be bemused. Greece came out of Pot One but are last with two goals and three managers to their name. Northern Ireland came out of Pot Five but are top. Yet it could still twist again.
There is the possibility that Hungary could win their last two matches and the Irish stumble to finish third. That seems far-fetched, but there is a man set to play who knows all about ruling nothing out.
In Kyle Lafferty's absence, Josh Magennis will be Northern Ireland's centre-forward. Not so long ago, Magennis was a Cardiff City goalkeeper, then Aberdeen's right-back.
Now at Kilmarnock, Magennis has spent most of his career on the periphery, which is why the 25-year-old may not have reached the broad soccer radar. But should he score the winner tonight, the goal which takes Northern Ireland to the European Championships for the first time, Magennis will be at the centre of it.
Already receiving unprecedented attention at the Irish base on the shores of Belfast Lough this week, Magennis has reviewed his career and said more than once: “It’s surreal.”
Born in Bangor, Magennis was a promising rugby player, good enough once to be close to the Ulster development squad. Instead he joined Glentoran as a youth – as a goalkeeper.
“I was a late developer in school,” Magennis explains. “I played with a lot of good footballers in my year but they already had contracts across the water. I still didn’t. I was playing with Glentoran as a goalkeeper.
"I went across at 16 to Cardiff. In my first year it was great, I ended up on the bench in the Carling Cup against Liverpool – it was Robbie Fowler's first game back at Anfield and it was amazing.
“After that, it was a downward spiral for me as a goalkeeper. It was too much development for what was needed at that standard.”
But Cardiff’s academy manager, Neil Ardley, had seen some striking potential in Magennis during training. Ardley urged him to give it a go.
“I ended up getting a contract, seeing out my time as a YTS and being a pro,” adds Magennis. “There were a lot of questions like: ‘Why would you bother with a goalkeeper when you can find talent elsewhere?’
“Neil Ardley said: ‘You don’t have to prove anything to anybody, as long as you keep believing in yourself you don’t need to be Maradona, you just need to be yourself.’
“I ended up being the top scorer in my youth academy development region, and getting a first-year pro contract at Cardiff.”
From Cardiff Magennis joined Aberdeen. It was as a striker, but they played him at right back for 20-odd games. Now he is at Kilmarnock, where O’Neill says his technique has improved on the artificial surface.
Since Lafferty’s yellow card against Hungary, Magennis has scored three times but he is yet to score for Northern Ireland. Tonight will be his 13th cap.
This latter-day Con Martin is an indication of the resources at O’Neill’s disposal, though the manager said yesterday that the squad is “stronger now” than at any time in his tenure. It will need to be, because with Lafferty, Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin suspended, and Jonny Evans injured and a doubt surrounding Aaron Hughes, Northern Ireland are stretched.
But it is still in their hands and the mood is good. O’Neill has been ribbed repeatedly about his spontaneous celebration when Lafferty scored that last-minute equaliser against Hungary a month ago, the image of David Pleat at Maine Road in 1983 being re-kindled. And the manager has talked about the difficulty of getting the players on the plane to Finland tomorrow morning should they win tonight.
Magennis embodies this. “It’s absolutely mental to think about it, to be honest,” he says. “Sometimes I get glimpses. I get a moment on my own and I’m thinking: ‘This is absolutely surreal.’
“Six years ago I was a goalkeeper. Now there’s a possibility to play as a striker in one of the biggest games in the nation’s history to get them to the Euros.”