It is hard to separate the footballing fortunes of Northern Ireland and the Republic: Charlton's team reached the US by coming from behind to seize a point in their final World Cup qualifier here last year.
That match was the last in Billy Bingham's long reign as manager of Northern Ireland. The team is now in the hands of Bryan Hamilton who, like his predecessor, has to pit his wits against Charlton. The two Irelands, plus Portugal, Austria, Latvia and Liechtenstein - who make their competitive debut at Windsor Park tomorrow - will contest two places at the European finals in England, in a qualifying programme that will not be completed until November 1995.
The 47-year-old Hamilton, born in Belfast, was not the favourite to succeed Bingham, whose assistant, Jimmy Nicholl, the manager of Raith Rovers, was expected to land the job. 'I wasn't surprised I was chosen, though,' Hamilton said yesterday. 'Maybe I had qualities the others (Gerry Armstrong and Chris Nicholl were also on the shortlist) did not have.'
One quality Hamilton did possess was that he was able to start work at once. As a player, he won 50 caps in midfield for his country. After leaving Linfield, he made his name with Ipswich Town before Bingham bought him for Everton in 1975. He moved on to Millwall, Swindon and Tranmere, where he became player- manager. Wigan, as manager, was the next port of call, then Leicester, then back to Wigan as chief executive. In his second spell at Springfield Park he was given the manager's job again, before being dismissed in March last year.
Although he played with or against some of the best players in Europe, there is little top-level experience in his managerial record. That does not bother him, though. 'I like to think that I'm a coach,' he said. 'Whatever the level of your players, coaching doesn't change an awful lot. You get your team right and do the best with what you've got.
'I want my team to play cultured, entertaining football, but sometimes you've got to mix and match. Players dictate to a coach. You have to work within their collective ability, until you can improve that ability. There's no sense in having fixed plans if the players can't respond. You can't change everything overnight.'
With stalwarts like Mal Donaghy and Jimmy Quinn at the veteran stage, Hamilton is aware of the need to find fresh talent. 'This is an area of concern. We have to work very hard at bringing young players through. We've given (Steve) Lomas, of Manchester City, his chance; (Keith) Gillespie, of Manchester United, would have been in this squad but for injury.'
Hamilton did not spend all his time on a golf course after Wigan dispensed with his services. 'I travelled a lot, learning about football around Europe. I studied different countries' style of play, and their training systems. I did a lot of preparation for this job.'
Hamilton does not hesitate to pay tribute to his predecessor but his sights are set firmly on the future. One senses that he wants talk of the World Cup achievements of 1982 and '86 to be left to the historians. 'Billy did a great job - nobody can take that away from him - but it's my time now. I don't want to be measured against anyone else.
'Billy's last result - that draw against the Republic - was a great achievement but my first game in charge produced an even better result: beating Romania in a friendly here last month. Now we want to build on that.'
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