The northern ireland football team is used to confounding expectations. Drawing on a population of just 1.8 million, this tiny country remains one of the smallest to qualify for a major tournament. And in a week’s time the Green And White Army will look to create history again, by qualifying for the 2018 world cup in Russia, as the team takes on Switzerland in two vital play-off matches.

Proud World Cup pedigree

By some calculations Northern Ireland is the most successful nation in world cup history, when population is taken into account. The country first qualified for a finals tournament in 1958, eventually reaching the quarter-finals in Sweden, despite its governing association’s decision to include fewer players that it was entitled to pick, in an injury ravaged squad.

Northern Ireland reached the World Cup twice more, in 1982 and 1986, under the guidance of their legendary manager, Billy Bingham. At the ‘82 tournament, in Spain, the Ulstermen claimed one of their greatest victories, defeating the hosts 1-0, after striker Gerry Armstrong drove an unstoppable shot past the Spanish goalkeeper, Arconada.

And last year the country, now managed by Michael O’Neill, an organisational genius in Bingham’s mould, qualified for the final stages of a competition yet again, reaching Euro 2016 in France. O’Neill’s side reached the knockout stages, recording a 2-0 win over Ukraine, before crashing out after a tight all-British encounter against Wales.

The road to Russia

Few of the Green and White Army, Northern Ireland’s colourful and noisy group of fans, expected their team to navigate a way out of a tough World Cup qualifying group for the tournament in Russia.

Their side faced current champions, Germany, and a strong Czech Republic outfit, as well as Norway, San Marino and a resurgent Azerbaijan.

However, O’Neill has built a resilient unit, based on a strong defence, featuring the West Bromwich Albion trio Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt, that put together an impressive unbeaten run.

They didn’t seriously trouble the Germans, who were runaway group winners, but they comfortably secured second place, with games to spare.

The play-off draw has presented them with tough opponents, in Switzerland, but O’Neill will feel that they are surmountable. The Swiss travel to Belfast to play Northern Ireland on 9th November.

Then the second leg is just three days later, at St Jakob’s Park, in Basel.

Both matches sold out quickly, with the Green and White Army’s 1,800 allocation in Switzerland seriously oversubscribed. The National Football Stadium at Belfast’s Boucher Road will also be filled to bursting, with 18,000 Ulstermen and some 900 Swiss supporters.

For the game in Basel, a considerable number of Northern Ireland supporters have snatched up additional tickets for the home end. If their team can secure its place at Russia 2018, they’ll be making their voices heard and insisting, to the strains of their informal anthem, Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, that ‘good times never been so good’.