Northern Ireland v Romania: Get behind us and believe in us, my boys are ready - Michael O’Neill’s message to fans for Euro 2016 showdown
Michael O’Neill has called on the Northern Ireland fans to get behind his team and believe in them ahead of tonight’s Euro 2016 qualifying showdown against Romania at Windsor Park.
Northern Ireland can go top of the Group F table by beating leaders Romania and take a massive step towards next year’s finals in France.
On the eve of the eagerly anticipated clash, O’Neill said: “My message to the fans is to keep supporting us. The main thing for me is for the supporters to keep backing the team and keep believing in the team.
“Our preparation has been excellent and we are ready for this game,” added the Northern Ireland boss, expected to bring in Michael McGovern to replace experienced goalkeeper Roy Carroll, who misses out due to an abdominal problem.
Great expectations are just fine... that's exactly what I wanted
Northern Ireland expects. And Michael O'Neill does not mind one little bit. It makes a welcome change from Northern Ireland fans dreading or fearing what's in front of them.
As O'Neill prepares to take his team into battle against Romania at Windsor Park tonight, confidence is steadily rising in the country that in a year's time Northern Ireland will be competing in the Euro 2016 finals in France.
Even O'Neill, not one for bombastic statements, admits victory over Romania this evening would see Northern Ireland close in on a first appearance at a major finals since the 1986 World Cup.
Not since the days when David Healy was defeating England and Spain at Windsor have Northern Ireland fans been so excited.
The difference is that back then those were big one-off occasions. If things keep going according to plan this is going to be a whole campaign to cherish.
Tonight Northern Ireland enter the clash with Romania knowing a home victory in the new-look stadium, minus the demolished Kop, will move them to the top of the Group F table with 15 points from six games.
O'Neill has consistently said 18 points will be enough to secure a top two spot and automatic qualification.
He will walk out at Windsor this evening with the support of over 9,000 fans - 705 Romanians will be cheering their team inside the ground - having first provided them with hope at the start of the campaign. Now they are filled with expectation.
"We wanted to create expectation," said O'Neill.
"One of the things I said to the players when I took the job was that playing for Northern Ireland is not just about picking up caps. You want to create memories and have things to look back on.
"A number of players in the squad had memories of big nights but they had never really had memories of going close to qualification. That's what we wanted to change.
"We have given ourselves the opportunity."
Throwing in a trademark note of caution, O'Neill, who suffered the rough of a disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign before this smooth run, added: "It is nice that everyone is talking about this game and the hype that surrounds it but we are not sitting here thinking qualification is a formality.
"It has taken us a huge amount of work and three years to get ourselves in this position and now the aim is to finish the thing off.
"Don't underestimate the work that has gone into this and because of that it is impossible for me as a coach and the players to take anything for granted. That type of attitude doesn't exist in the squad or with the coaching staff."
O'Neill described his team's preparation for the game with Romania as 'excellent" though losing experienced goalkeeper Roy Carroll (pictured) to an abdominal problem can't have helped.
Michael McGovern replaces his fellow Fermanagh man. In front of him in defence will be Conor McLaughlin, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt. The midfield should consist of Chris Baird, Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood with flank men Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas supporting the dangerous Kyle Lafferty in attack.
In November, Romania beat Northern Ireland 2-0 in Bucharest but the visitors were understrength. This time Romania will be missing key outfield players Razvan Rat and Lucian Sanmartean.
O'Neill has much respect for Romania and their veteran coach Anghel Iordanescu, known as the 'General'.
When asked by a Romanian media man if he was ready for war, the ex-Shamrock Rovers boss laughed and said: "I wouldn't go as far as saying it will be a war but we will be prepared for a tough match.
"The Romanian players are very technical and also very tough, but we equally have a good physical presence in our team. Lafferty, Evans, McAuley, Baird are all strong, competitive players and we also have good technical players around that, too. It is set up for a good game."
On qualification, O'Neill stated: "We hope to win the group, but the main priority for us is to qualify. If we qualify through the top two positions we'll be satisfied.
"This is a game in which we can take a massive stride towards the finals but if the result doesn't go our way we'll still be second in the group with four games left. The upside of winning far outweighs the downside of losing. That's a nice position to be in."
Euro 2016 Qualifiers Group F: Windsor Park, Sat 7.45pm (Sky Sports)