Belfast Telegraph

Irish FA face a fight to keep hold of Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

By Billy Hamilton

Thursday night was amazing. I was on the pitch when we qualified for the 1982 World Cup by beating Israel at Windsor Park. To be in the stand this time, as we beat Greece 3-1 to book our spot at the Euro 2016 Finals, gave me a different perspective, but one I hugely enjoyed.

It was like being at a pop concert. The noise from the crowd was so loud that my ears are still ringing - even though I was wearing headphones, as I was working for the BBC.

It was brilliant for me to experience that and to relive the memories of when we qualified for that 1982 World Cup and to look back at that.

There were 40,000 there that night, the ground holds a lot less at the minute, but they make just as much noise.

When you are involved in something like that you don't really take it in at the time, but I do have memories of it and they came flooding back to me after the match.

I loved seeing the joy of the fans in the stands and the players on the pitch and they were loving it so much that there was still something like 3,000 people still there nearly an hour after the match had finished.

They were great scenes and you could see the emotion of the players. Getting the manager Michael O'Neill and giving him the bumps shows the spirit that there is in the squad.

It was something that carried us beyond the initial group stages when we got to the 1982 Finals.

It's a little tool that not every team has, but you can see it in this Northern Ireland team and it's a great advantage for them when they get together.

On paper we aren't the best team in the world, but when you have a spirit in the team like that it makes you hard to beat.

The team has played well, got stronger as the campaign has gone on and a big part of that is down to Michael O'Neill.

The trouble now is trying to keep him.

There will be clubs in the Premier League and around the top of the Championship who, if they are making a change, will be thinking about Michael.

I do genuinely believe that he will have interest from the Premier League.

His stock is high, he is in the spotlight and I think progressive chairmen who are looking for a good young up and coming manager will have Michael O'Neill on his list.

He hasn't just secured qualification for the European Championships, he has done it in style - and a point in Finland will see us top the group.

Remember we were fifth seeds in this group, so to be first shows the magnitude of the achievement. I don't think many fifth seeded teams have qualified before, let along qualifying as group winners.

People will take note of that.

The question people will be asking now is, can the team make an impact in France?

The way Michael has the team set up, with Kyle Lafferty leading the line so well and you could see against Greece the midfield getting back into their own half to get behind the ball as quickly as they could, they are geared to attack and defend and we can be a handful for anyone.

The finals will be interesting and I am looking forward to them already.

Belfast Telegraph