The rise and rise of Northern Ireland under the careful, clever stewardship of Michael O’Neill has been one of the surprises of these European Championship qualifiers.
Away wins in Hungary and Greece set a tone at the start of the campaign and optimism has built slowly. But should Northern Ireland overcome Romania tonight at a Windsor Park stadium in the throes of redevelopment, then expectation will shoot up.
Romania lead Group F by a point from the Irish, who are four clear of third-placed Hungary.
Romania are ranked 12th in the world, one spot above Italy, and an Irish victory would be the loudest statement yet that O’Neill and his players are putting together something remarkable. This is a country that came out of fifth pot when the draw was made. Others will have looked at them as making up the numbers.
O’Neill, a grounded, impressive 45-year-old who has endured some difficult moments in his three-and-a half years in the post, is now trying to strike a balance between encouraging expectations while keeping them realistic.
Locally the game is being billed as the biggest in 30 years and O’Neill said: “As regards the hype, it doesn’t really influence me or the preparation of the team. It’s not as if it’s a last-chance saloon type of game. The best way I can describe it is that the upside of winning far outweighs the downside of losing. And that’s a nice position to be in.
“I’ve said all along we wanted to create expectations. When I came in I said to the players that it’s not just about picking up caps, you want to create memories. A number of players in the squad had memories of big nights, but they didn’t have memories of going close to qualification. That’s what we wanted to change.”
Veteran keeper Roy Carroll withdrew yesterday afternoon with a stomach bug. He will be replaced by Hamilton’s Michael McGovern, but O’Neill may name a starting XI with five players from the Premier League.
That is as strong as it gets for the manager, though three of that five, Jonny Evans at Manchester United and Gareth McAuley and Chris Baird at West Bromwich Albion are either out of contract or have doubts about their club futures. Another likely starter, Jamie Ward, has just been released by Derby County.
O’Neill’s ability to gel such players with the likes of Conor McLaughlin, of Fleetwood Town, who has been excellent at right-back, is all part of the story. A win tonight would enhance it but O’Neill is aware that the only Irish loss so far has been in Bucharest. Since Anghel Iordanescu has returned to the national job, O’Neill said Romania have been more adventurous. They too know what a victory would bring them.
“We won’t play without caution, that would be foolhardy, but we’ll play with an intensity and an attitude to go and win the game,” O’Neill added. “That’s been hammered home all week. The players are ready. I can see that.”Reuse content