Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill ready to bring back Windsor Park buzz

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has outlined his desire to create another 'special night' at Windsor Park this evening that will spark memories of famous victories over England and Spain.

Like those epic matches in 2005 and 2006, Northern Ireland enter tonight's World Cup qualifier with Fabio Capello's Russian side as huge underdogs, but O'Neill says he has a 'good feeling' about the game.

O'Neill revealed that a match like this, taking on high class opposition and a renowned manager in front of a packed house at Windsor, was one of the major reasons why he wanted to take charge of the national team.

Nine matches into his reign he is still searching for his first win.

Could this Group F encounter, which was postponed back in March due to heavy snow in Belfast, turn out to be the perfect 10?

"When I got the Northern Ireland manager's job I wanted the chance to recreate those special nights that I watched at Windsor Park when I was working as a media pundit at the time," said O'Neill.

"I saw the team beat the likes of England and Spain which was fantastic and now this is the first time since I became manager that we have the opportunity to face that type of quality opposition at Windsor Park.

"I would like to try and turn it into a great occasion and get a result from the game that will lift everyone.

"For the original game in March we had great preparation but ultimately it was cancelled. I had a good feeling then and going into this game I also have a good feeling. It is down to the players to make it a special night and I know they are keen to do that.

"For me it's fantastic taking on a top manager like Capello. It would be great to beat his team and it would be a real confidence boost for the players because I think Russia are the best side in the group."

O'Neill and his team will have to deliver against Russia without striker Kyle Lafferty.

The Fermanagh man who signed for Italian outfit Palermo in the summer picked up an achilles tendon injury during a game in which he scored on Sunday.

Lafferty has missed many internationals through injury or suspension since making his debut seven years ago. This latest withdrawal has led to some supporters questioning Lafferty's loyalty to the cause. O'Neill, though, defended the player insisting that the problem was genuine.

"This is our sixth game in the campaign and Kyle has played 90 minutes in the previous four and he was suspended for the Israel match so there's no issue there for me," said O'Neill.

"Any time that Kyle has been unavailable for me he has been genuinely injured. I spoke to him last week and he was looking forward to playing for Palermo on Sunday.

"We've talked to Palermo and like us they are disappointed he is not available. It's frustrating not to have Kyle and yes, it's a blow but it means an opportunity for another player."

It sure is. Time for Martin Paterson or Jamie Ward to step up. Niall McGinn is also capable of finding the net.

Russia will have lots of possession tonight, so it is crucial that the home side make good use of the ball when they have it. Captain Steve Davis must lead by example on that front.

Tonight's match opens up the second half of what has been a disappointing campaign to date. Three points from five games, three of which have been at home, has been a poor return.

O'Neill wants more in the remaining matches, but refuses to set a target for his players. He did, however, speak about his demands tonight.

"I want us to put in a competitive performance and be a well organised team. Our expectation will be to take something from the game and our approach will be to win it," he said.

In recent games at Windsor, Northern Ireland have shown mental frailty. They can't afford that tonight.

O'Neill said: "The players have suffered from being in strong positions and not capitalising and that does weigh you down as a player.

"With club football if you don't get a result you are back on the training pitch within two days but in international football you carry that result around with you a lot longer. The team have to get beyond that with a good result and then players can grow and develop.

"Against Russia our younger players won't have the stigma of what has gone on before and will play without fear."

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