Bryan Hamilton’s unique relationship with Billy Bingham meant that he knew he would be a success with Linfield the moment he walked through the door — even if it took time for other players to come round to their new manager’s way of thinking.
Hamilton had been just a raw 21-year-old still playing for the Blues when Bingham handed him his Northern Ireland debut in Turkey and the legendary former international boss, who passed away last week at the age of 90, had a major influence on his career.
After taking over at Linfield, Bingham later sent Hamilton on the path to full-time football with Ipswich Town. Then, in a strange twist of fate, it was Hamilton who succeeded Bingham as Northern Ireland manager upon his retirement in 1994.
It was the shake-up that occurred when Bingham took charge at Linfield that put the Blues back on top in his only season back in 1971 after being dethroned by rivals Glentoran the previous year.
“Before him, we had Tommy Leishman and Ewan Fenton, two very, very good managers with different qualities,” recalls Hamilton, who was the League’s top goalscorer with 18 from midfield in that 1970-71 campaign.
“Billy brought a professional approach to it, almost like a full-time professional set-up in that he had us training more evenings.
“He brought that little bit of something else to the club and the team was successful under him both at home and with a degree of success in Europe.
“That didn’t suit everybody because all of a sudden these guys, who were characters in their own right, had this guy coming in and we were doing three nights a week, call me boss, do this, do that.
“For the vast majority of players it was fine, but for some it wasn’t maybe what they wanted to hear. But as the shape of the side changed, fitness levels increased and the wins became more apparent, I think everybody realised that he had a lot to offer.
“We went on to win the League and the All-Ireland so he proved to be successful.”
Inextricably linked, Hamilton won both his first and last Northern Ireland caps under Bingham and was one of a very small number of players who transcended both his spells in charge.
As international boss, Hamilton wasn’t able to match Bingham’s achievements of qualifying for the World Cup, but he did steer the team very close to reaching Euro ’96.
Having followed the great man, Hamilton finds it impossible to separate Bingham and 1958 World Cup boss Peter Doherty — who was a fantastic player in his own right — in the pantheon of greats.
“Billy gave me my Northern Ireland debut, a couple of years later he became my manager at Linfield and then he transferred me to Ipswich,” says Hamilton.
“He played an important part in my career and I will always be grateful to him for that.
“He believed in me and he thought that I could make the step up and do reasonably well and he was quite supportive.
“Before my international debut, he made it very simple for me. The great George Best wasn’t available for that game and that is my claim to fame that I took George’s place — even though I couldn’t lace his boots.
“He was very good to me and I was always appreciative of it. I think what he did for Northern Ireland football, I think he would be pleased to share the title of the best Northern Ireland manager with Peter Doherty because, like me, Billy thought that Peter Doherty was the best and I thought he was the best.”