Team spirit key to Northern Ireland's success says Jonny Evans
World Cup 2018 Qualifying Group C: Azerbaijan 0 Northern Ireland 1
NORTHERN Ireland are reaping the benefits of a bond fostered in France last summer, according to defender Jonny Evans.
A year ago today Michael O'Neill's team were kicking off their Euro 2016 campaign, their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup, against Poland in Nice.
They would go on to reach the last 16 to create lasting memories for supporters largely starved of them in the previous three decades.
The good times have continued to roll in the World Cup qualification campaign that has followed, and Stuart Dallas' last-gasp winner in Azerbaijan on Saturday has left them in excellent shape to claim second place, and a likely play-off spot, in their group.
Evans believes last summer's experience at the Euros was pivotal in helping establish a togetherness in the Northern Irish camp that could now drive them on to Russia.
"We've always had a great spirit with Northern Ireland – there's always been a great bond between the players, even when results were going bad," the West Brom defender claimed.
"But when things are going well it does give you that confidence. Our experience of being at the Euros brought everyone closer together, people know each other now and it's really good to see the lads coming into the squad blend in and they've been impressing. Hopefully that can continue.
"Michael deserves all the credit with the amount of time and preparation he puts in. Just for this one game, we've been away for three weeks building up for one game and it shows how much the lads respect him to do that."
If Northern Ireland are to reach the World Cup for the first time in 32 years, they will look back on Dallas' stoppage-time strike as a defining moment in the qualification campaign.
Prior to that point O'Neill had seemed content to settle for a draw but he was spoiled by a further two points, which looked all the more valuable when the Czech Republic were held 1-1 by Norway later in the night.
Evans compared the impact of Dallas' goal to Kyle Lafferty's late effort to salvage a draw against Hungary in 2015, which ensured they could seal qualification for the Euros the following month.
"I think with our experience of the last campaign, you know how quickly things can change," Evans noted.
"You look back at the Hungary game and we scored in the last minute – maybe that was a bit similar on Saturday night. We get that goal and it can sort of propel us and give us that confidence. But it's definitely not over and we've got a lot of work to do.
"It was a really hard-fought result. As Michael said, maybe three or for years ago, we would have come away and with the way the game panned out, we might have lost it.
"I think you can see the discipline within the squad now, the belief that we've got. Everyone's working really hard for each other.
"That comes with winning games and gaining confidence, and that experience of playing against really good teams that you've got to be fully focussed and be patient within the game.
"It might have looked like the result would never come, and there were times when we thought that ourselves, but Stuart managed to nick one at the end and it's a great feeling."