A first major tournament appearance in three decades will come as massively unexpected, as manager Michael O’Neill could hardly buy a win before their Group F schedule got underway in Budapest a year ago. But a 2-1 victory in that fixture really kick-started a surge of momentum which has carried them to the top ahead of Romania, a team ranked as high as seventh in the world by FIFA.
Kyle Lafferty has in particular established himself at the forefront of Northern Irish football, ironically at a time where his club career is in a state of instability. Six goals so far has him joint second in the scoring charts across all of the qualifying groups as things stand, the most recent of those coming in the Faroe Islands to clinch a 3-1 victory on Friday.
It was a game that required patience to win, with a sending off turning proceedings in their favour following an evenly contested first hour. It was well seized upon by Lafferty and Gareth McAuley; a symbol of the confidence and understanding that now exists within the Northern Ireland team.
There will be a partisan atmosphere at Windsor Park, but Hungary will undoubtedly make things tough. Unbeaten in the group since losing that opening match to Northern Ireland, they will still harbour ambitions of an automatic qualification place in their desperation to end a long wait for a return to major tournament football. Among their familiar faces are Watford players past and present in the shape of Tamas Priskin and Daniel Tozser.