The wait is nearly over.
Two weeks tomorrow, Northern Ireland will discover who they will be paired with for the European Championship 2016 finals.
All eyes will be on the draw, with Michael O’Neill’s men poised to be in Pot Four, the bottom group of seeds.
O’Neill’s charges booked their place in next summer’s tournament in France with victory over Greece last month, and a draw in Finland ensured that they topped Group F.
Victory over Greece at a jubilant Windsor Park ended a sequence of 14 unsuccessful qualifying campaigns since Northern Ireland reached the 1986 World Cup.
“It is brilliant for the whole country and the fans as they haven’t had a lot to cheer over the last few years,” Wednesday striker Caolan Lavery told The Star. “The fans have really got behind the team and Michael O’Neill has got everyone playing for each other.
“It will be really good for the nation. I have got a lot of family members who will be going over to France whether I am there or not.
“It is good for the young kids growing up in Northern Ireland as they realise they have got something to look forward to if they want to push on and play international football.
“A lot of players have switched from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland in the last decade because they didn’t think there was a chance of them playing in a major tournament so I think this can only be a good thing for the association.”
Born in Canada but raised in Derrymacash in County Armagh, Lavery is backing Northern Ireland to thrive on the biggest stage. They are currently on an eight-match unbeaten run, the first time they have achieved that feat in 30 years when Billy Bingham was in charge
Lavery said: “The creme of the crop is going to be at the Euro’s.
“It will be interesting to see who we get in the group and then it will be down to Michael O’Neill and the rest of the staff to get a game plan together.
“We deserve to be going and the group of players that have qualified are all playing good level football. They might not be the world class players Spain and Germany have but the work ethic, togetherness that they have can take them a long way.
“Look at Greece who won the Euro’s in 2004. I don’t think a lot of people expected them to go all the way and win it.
“I’m not saying we could be the Greece of next year but you never know in football.”
Time is running out for Lavery muscle his way into O’Neill’s squad. Although he has twice received senior call-ups, the 23-year-old is still waiting to earn his first international cap. He was an unused substitute for Northern Ireland’s qualifying fixtures with Romania and Hungary last summer.
When pressed on what it would mean to be on the plane jetting off to France, Lavery quipped: “You would be surprised how many people times I have been asked this question!
“Growing up as a kid, you always watch the European Championships and World Cups. You hope, believe and pray that one day you can be part of a major tournament like that and have a small taste of it.
“I have been in the squad for a few qualifiers. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play a part in the qualifying campaign but I have seen how much it means to each and everyone of the players and staff.
“If I can do enough for my club, wherever that maybe, hopefully I can be a part of it.
“It would be a dream come true but I know it will be difficult. There are a lot of good players up in the leagues in Scotland and England scoring goals every week.
“Right now, I am just focusing on my game, doing what I can to help Portsmouth and everything else will take care of itself.”
League Two Portsmouth beat off strong competition to land Lavery on a temporary basis last month. The striker, who is set to remain at Fratton Park until January 19, is grateful to Pompey boss Paul Cook, who he worked with at Chesterfield, for giving him the opportunity to get his stalled career back on track.
“Paul [Cook] is a very honest manager,” said Lavery, who has also previously had loan stints at Southend United and Plymouth Argyle. “All the players know what to expect from him and they try their best for him. He is good to work for and likes to play football in the right way.
“I am really enjoying it here. It is nice to be feeling good again. The first couple of games were quite difficult considering I haven’t played much this season.
“The group of lads are one of the best I’ve come across. Everyone is really close together and we all have the same goal which is to get out of this league. That makes training fun.”
Lavery impressed as Portsmouth thrashed York City 6-0 in midweek. He has registered two goals in seven outings to boost Pompey’s promotion challenge. Cook’s side are currently lie in fourth position.
“The quality isn’t always there in League Two and it can be quite physical but I don’t think the standard is as bad as people say it is at times,” he said. “We have a brilliant squad and everyone here could easily be playing at a higher level.
“Sometimes we [Portsmouth] get bullied into playing a different way from the style we like to play. We want to get the ball down and play but it’s not always possible.”