IT has been so painfully long that Dean Shiels does not have a personal memory of the last time Northern Ireland qualified for a major tournament.
He was still in nappies and learning his first words when Billy Bingham’s boys joined the fiesta at the Mexico World Cup in 1986.
Now with his homeland on the cusp of securing their place at Euro 2016, the reinvigorated Rangers midfielder is desperate to reclaim his place in the squad and spend next summer in France.
An exhilarating campaign so far under Michael O’Neill has taken Northern Ireland tantalisingly close to qualification for Euro 2016 and they could clinch their spot in France next month.
If they beat the Faroe Islands away and Hungary lose to Romania on 4 September they will ensure qualification by beating the Hungarians at Windsor Park three days later.
He said: “Obviously I want to get back in the squad. It’s something I do think about at night.
“I played a lot under Michael O’Neill when he got the job but due to not playing at Rangers I lost my place in the squad. But hopefully that can come again this season.
“You’ve got to do well in club football to have a chance, so hopefully if I can keep doing well I’ve got a chance.
“This is a key moment in the country’s history with it being so long since we were last in a major tournament.
“These next games in September are going to be key in the whole group.”
Shiels has not yet featured in Northern Ireland’s qualifying campaign as O’Neill has guided them into second place behind Romania with four matches left to play.
The 14-times capped midfielder was last in a squad when he was an unused substitute against Chile in June 2014.
He said: “Obviously I still look at the games as a fan when they’re playing. I’ve got a lot of close friends in the squad and it’s great to see them doing so well.
“Michael O’Neill has been in touch regularly but not recently because the season ended and then we had the play-offs.
“But he is one that communicates a lot with his squad and hopefully if I can keep doing well for Rangers then that will come.”
The 30-year-old feels wanted again at Rangers having been involved in all three victories under manager Mark Warburton so far and scored in last Friday’s league-opening victory over St Mirren.
It seems he is vying with Jason Holt for the right midfield position but having spoken with Warburton, he knows what the manager wants of him and he feels he can operate in a number of different roles.
He said: “There’s going to be competition for places and that can only benefit the team as a whole if the team’s firing on all cylinders.
“Obviously he wants us to play a certain way, he wants a lot of rotation in midfield, a lot of energy, getting in the box, getting back into your shape.
“That’s part of the game I enjoy doing so hopefully the way he wants me to play can benefit me.”
Even although it will increase competition, Shiels would love to see a deal done for veteran John Eustace. Having played against the 35-year-old in England’s second tier and worked with him in training at Murray Park, Shiels believes Eustace has a huge role to play.
The former Derby County and Watford star has been working on his fitness at the Milngavie training ground as Rangers make sure he is not going to turn out to be an injury risk and could sign a deal by the end of this week.
Shiels said: “I’ve played against John in England when he was at Watford and Derby. He’s a very good player and he brings a wealth of experience.
“He’s had a few injury problems of late but hopefully once he’s fit he can be an addition. I don’t know his personal situation, I don’t know if he’s close to signing, but I know he’s a good player and he’ll have a lot to offer if he does sign.
“He’s been at a few clubs and he was a player who was always difficult to play against.
“You can tell from speaking to him about the game that he’s got a lot of knowledge about it. He’s got positive things to offer the group and if that works out he’ll be a great addition to the group.
“He’s a typical midfielder, he can sit, he can get in the box and score goals, but he’s probably best as a sitting midfielder.
“He’s also been captain at nearly every club he’s been at so those leadership qualities will be key going into the season. His experience can be a help, he has a lot of knowledge and has a lot to offer on the park.”