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Northern Ireland v Hungary: Michael O'Neill ready for his finest hour


Euro dream: Michael O'Neill wants his side to seal qualification with a win against Hungary

Euro dream: Michael O'Neill wants his side to seal qualification with a win against Hungary

?William Cherry / Presseye

Euro dream: Michael O'Neill wants his side to seal qualification with a win against Hungary

Michael O'Neill knows what is at stake. Not just for the mood of the nation, his players, his staff and the fans who have followed Northern Ireland through thick and thin.

Qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals would also do wonders for him... rocketing a reputation in the managerial game to new, lofty heights.

And clever guy that he is, the history of the achievement will not be lost on him, even if initially he did play it down at yesterday's press conference at Windsor Park ahead of tonight's eagerly anticipated Group F clash with Hungary.

A home win takes Northern Ireland to the European Championship finals.

No other Northern Ireland boss has managed that feat, not even the iconic Billy Bingham, who inspired his teams to reach the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.

Asked about the personal historic element of tonight's dream scenario, O'Neill said: "If I am honest, it is not something I have given a huge amount of thought about.

"I have remained focused throughout this campaign, and I will remain focused for the Hungary game."

Pausing for a moment, he added: "I would love to take this group of players to a major tournament - of course I would. If I do, then I will reflect on it, but only when I achieve it.

"I think it is up to other people to assess the impact of the achievement. Personally, it will mean everything to me. It will be the biggest achievement in my career to do it.

"It would also be great to do it with a group of players I have the utmost respect for and who are a joy to work with.

"Right now though I'm not thinking about that, just focusing on the game with Hungary."

O'Neill did superbly as boss of Shamrock Rovers both domestically and in Europe, guiding the League of Ireland outfit into the group stages of the Europa League, but taking Northern Ireland to a major championships? As he appreciates, that would be on a whole different level and see interest in the 46-year-old increase around the UK and beyond.

Conversations in boardrooms about potential future managers would suddenly include the name of Michael O'Neill, though it won't be until after next year's finals in France at least, before he considers leaving the Northern Ireland job behind.

Enthused by the efforts of his team to date, O'Neill is as proud as punch that they have a chance to qualify in game eight of a 10 match campaign.

Yesterday he was keen to make the point, though, that if things don't go according to plan this evening, there will be more chances to reach France in the near future.

"Our objective is to finish the job against Hungary, but if we don't we still hold the keys to our own destiny," said the Northern Ireland boss.

"And if we have to go to the 89th minute in our last group game against Finland next month to qualify, then so be it.

"We have not had any major setbacks in this campaign, apart from losing against Romania, and I am confident this group will deal with any more setbacks.

"Defeat wouldn't be a disaster because we are in such a good position, but our mindset will be to go for the win.

"I don't think there is a nervousness in the group. There is an excitement and a really strong belief. We know what we are good at as a team.

"I expect a similar level of performance like we have had through this campaign."

O'Neill knows that Hungary, four points behind Northern Ireland and three adrift of second placed Romania, will come to Windsor looking to win. A draw will surely not be enough for them to have a chance of making the top two in Group F and the automatic qualification that comes with it.

On the opponents he said: "We have already beaten Hungary in Budapest, but we recognise that it is possibly a different Hungarian team we will face this time.

"The four-point gap we have between ourselves and Hungary is a healthy position to be in. We would anticipate that Hungary will come with a firm intention of winning the game and closing that gap.

"Hungary have had five clean sheets in their last five games. They aren't scoring a lot of goals but they are still winning games 1-0. We recognise where the threats come from in their team, and we expect a tough game."

O'Neill is likely to go with the same XI that started in the 3-1 victory in the Faroe Islands on Friday night with Jamie Ward still not recovered from a hamstring problem.

The mood in the camp is good. O'Neill said: "The players are in great form, focused and ready to play."

And ready to win. Expect Northern Ireland to deliver tonight and get this French themed party started.

Belfast Telegraph