Northern Ireland’s award winning supporters won’t take long to make their new stadium into a fortress.
The old Windsor Park was famed for the cauldron created by the home fans. It was an atmosphere that no doubt helped to topple the great and the good of world football in recent years.
And now the manager is convinced that the fans can recreate that in the new-look National Stadium, starting against San Marino on Saturday night.
“It’s all bright and shiny and new, and it’s got curvy bits at the end and everything, and triangles in the corner, but the most important thing is what is the atmosphere going to be like?” said Michael O’Neill. “The atmosphere will be fantastic.
“It’s a credit to the supporters that even in a state of redevelopment, it never lost its atmosphere. I remember playing against the Faroe Islands with two sides and the atmosphere was brilliant that night.
“The team have created that and the supporters have played a huge part in it, and we don’t want to lose that.
“Every time we play here it has to be an experience for the team and the supporters where they go away saying that was brilliant and they want to come back. The team have to continue creating those types of nights.”
The new stadium has a capacity of over 18,000 and, in appearance at least, is much more befitting of an international side ranked 30th in the world.
“It’s no longer archaic, which is a positive thing,” continued O’Neill. “It’s fit for purpose.
“We went around Europe and we’d see countries with invariably better stadiums than we had. The players would think when were we going to get a stadium of that stature and we have it now.”
In the previous World Cup qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland failed to make the most of home ties against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg, both outside the world’s top 100. The hosts were twice held to frustrating 1-1 draws.
There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then - not least a successful Euro 2016 qualifying tilt and the experience of playing at the finals.
“The team played well in both games,” O’Neill reflected. “(We were) a bit tired in the first game against Luxembourg and drew with a bizarre deflection off Ryan McGivern. Against Azerbaijan, we created enough chances to win two games.
“The biggest thing is the motivation to win. By the time we played the smaller nations at the tail end of the last campaign there was no motivation there. We couldn’t qualify, we were constantly battling against player availability, all of those things.
“That’s the biggest challenge. You must make sure the motivation is there and you have a chance of qualification for as long as possible.”
O’Neill also said that his players will “embrace” the expectation of victory and reckoned they won’t “pay much attention” to the celebrations surrounding the official opening of the new stadium.
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