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Former boss Bryan Hamilton is hoping for special night

By Stuart McKinley

Published 10/06/2015

Another one down: Oliver Norwood and Jonny Evans celebrate beating Finland in March
Another one down: Oliver Norwood and Jonny Evans celebrate beating Finland in March

Michael O'Neill has a big night out coming up on Saturday.

It's not your regular weekend evening on the town in Belfast.

He won't be popping into any of the new trendy bars and clubs that have sprung up in the city. Instead, Windsor Park will be his domain and rather than a golden mile, it will be a few yards of the touchline that he will be parading.

His 'morning after' feeling is also out of his own hands. That rests on what 11 others do out on the pitch when Northern Ireland face Romania in a crunch Euro 2016 qualifier - probably the biggest game at Windsor for a generation.

Former Northern Ireland boss Bryan Hamilton is hoping that history repeats itself, with the men in green beating the Romanians and the manager having a Sunday morning feeling like he's never had before.

Victory would take Northern Ireland to the top of Group F and only a terrible slump in the final four games would deny O'Neill at least third place and a play-off.

"Beating Romania gave me an amazing start to my time as Northern Ireland manager," said Hamilton, whose team won 2-0 on his debut in the Windsor Park dugout back in March 1994.

"It was a great night for everyone, we won the game comfortably in the end against a very strong Romania team that would go on to reach the World Cup quarter-finals just a few months later and it gave us a great platform to start from.

"I still remember the morning after the game, I had one of the best feelings of my life.

"As I was having my breakfast, things started to sink in for me. It was a nice morning in Belfast, we'd won the game the night before and the fans were delighted - I hope that Michael has the same feeling on Sunday morning."

If he does then that's where Hamilton wants O'Neill to draw the line as far as seeing history repeated goes.

After that friendly win over Romania, Northern Ireland missed out on qualification for the European Championship finals by the finest of margins.

One more point would have seen Hamilton's team in a play-off with Holland for a place at Euro 96. Three would have meant automatic qualification.

Many point to a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Latvia 20 years ago last Sunday as the game where qualification hopes sank.

When you think that just a couple of months earlier Northern Ireland had won 1-0 in Riga and the major difference between being part of the show when football came home the following summer and watching it on television, it's clear to understand why that feeling still prevails.

For Hamilton, however, there were more positives than negatives from that campaign.

"When you think that we went to Vienna, Dublin and Lisbon and remained unbeaten away from home in the group, I think that was terrific," said Hamilton, who as he approaches his 69th birthday now works in corporate hospitality at his old club, Ipswich Town.

"We scored 20 goals during the campaign as well, but we just lacked something at home that would have got us over the line.

"I think that we did as well as we could have done and that's what you look for as a coach.

"I don't think we could have done any better.

"We had some great games and the fantastic 5-3 win against Austria was a fitting end to the campaign. It was a special period.

"If it was today, with the European Championships expanded, third place would have got us a play-off and it's a shame that wasn't the case then because those players deserved to get some reward at the finish."

Cutting that Northern Ireland squad of 20 years ago a bit of slack, you could argue that it was the right team at the wrong time as far as facing Latvia was concerned, but while he thinks that extending the season into the summer isn't ideal, Hamilton believes the June jinx can be broken.

"I do think that June is the wrong time to play a game," said Hamilton (pictured below shaking hands with former Germany manager Berti Vogts).

"Players have had a long season and it's hard to be 100 per cent focused at that time of the year.

"At that time pitches didn't play great in June either. There just wasn't the finance or the know-how back then to improve and turn them around in a short space of time like there is now.

"I did make a comment about the pitch at Windsor Park around that time. It wasn't a personal attack on the groundsman - and I spoke to him to tell him that. I was trying to get people to think how we could make it better.

"Things are different now. The pitch at Windsor Park will be in great condition I am sure and things have changed from a players' point of view too.

"Now good players can play at any time of the year and the group of players that Michael O'Neill has at the minute know what is expected and demanded of them."

Belfast Telegraph

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