Rory McArdle is hoping that Nicosia tomorrow night will represent the opening step on a long road that leads to France 2016.

The City centre half flew out to Cyprus on Sunday for Northern Ireland’s first friendly since the draw for the next European Championship qualifiers.

And there should be an extra spring in the step of Michael O’Neill and his squad.

For once, they will carry genuine belief of making it through to their first finals since the likes of Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong and Norman Whiteside boarded the plane for the World Cup in Mexico 28 years ago.

The expansion of the next Euros from 16 teams qualifying to 24 has drawn heavy criticism, with accusations that UEFA are making it far too easy for the biggest countries.

But for the supposed minnows such as Northern Ireland, the opportunity of breaking back into the big time after nearly three decades in the wilderness has also increased.

Even more so when they were handed a group almost as kind as the hand-picked selection presented to Roy Hodgson’s England.

As a team in pot five for the draw, they were open to any of the big-hitters – but the top seed in their group are Greece.

McArdle said: “If you look at who we could have got, they’d be the one you’d pick. We’ve generally been lucky with the whole group – it could have been a lot worse.”

Romania, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands make up the opposition, with the carrot of two going through and the third-placed team going into a play-off. It is the best chance Northern Ireland could have wished for to emulate the team from ’86.

“Everyone knows about the extra teams that will go to the finals, whether it’s right or not,” said McArdle.

“If we look at winning our home games and take a few points away, hopefully fingers crossed we can be there or thereabouts.

“There is a realistic chance. We’ve got Greece quite early, which is not ideal, but if we can start well and get some points on the board, there’s no reason why we can’t challenge.

“The most important thing is that we win our home games. That held us back in the last campaign because we did okay away from home.”

Coach Michael O’Neill survived some calls for his head and was handed a new contract. Having forced his way into the plans, McArdle was delighted with the status quo at the top.

He said: “I’m glad he stayed. I know a lot of people might complain about the results but generally the performances have been good and there’s a decent crop of new players coming through.

“For me personally, it’s good news to keep the manager. It’s the same with club football – if a new coach comes in, before you know it you might be nowhere near the first team.

“It’s a bit of a transition period and it probably needed freshening up. But if you bed in the new players and keep the strong core with the likes of Gareth McAuley, who’ve played a lot of games and travelled here, there and everywhere, they can pass their experience on and hopefully it will strengthen the team going forward.”

McArdle was on the bench for the last international in Turkey in November but did not appear because of injury.

But having featured regularly in O’Neill’s most recent squads, he believes the first qualifier in Hungary six months from now is a genuine target.

“Last year there were a few stand-by call-ups and then I was quite happy with how I played against Israel,” said the Bantams defender.

“It just shows that if you are playing quite well with your club, then the manager will stick by you.

“A few of the boys are probably getting towards the end of their international careers. You see quite a few step down so they can prolong their club career.

“Whether that’s the right thing to do, everyone’s body is different. But obviously it does mean that more places become available.

“Michael will be looking at the games coming up and boys of the right age. Hopefully I’m in that group.”

Tomorrow’s game is expected to go ahead despite the bombing of a referee’s car on the island.

League matches were cancelled in Cyprus over the weekend after the vehicle of a top official was damaged by an explosion on Friday morning. Nobody was injured in the blast.