Michael O’Neill loves the expectation that his side face ahead of their UEFA Nations League opener against Bosnia and Herzegovina at the National Stadium at Windsor Park today.
After a number of barren years O’Neill’s men have been on song in recent campaigns and they will be targeting promotion to Division A rather than fearing relegation to the third tier when the competition kicks-off.
“For me, it’s good to see players turn up for international duty with a smile on their face and a real purpose and a belief they can achieve something,” said O’Neill.
“Expectation is a good thing. The worst thing you can have in football is no expectation.”
There was a far different mood in the camp when O’Neill first took the job in 2011 but the manager believes you have to experience the tough times to appreciate the good days.
“You have to go through that situation as a manager and as a group of players. I didn’t just come in with a magic wand and everything just fell into place. That didn’t happen.
“What we managed to do was get every ounce out of the players that we could.”
O’Neill believes those expectations can help continue the momentum they developed in their last two qualifying campaigns as he looks to younger players to freshen up his squad after a number of players went out of the reckoning.
“To have that within the group, it’s a great time for young players to come into the squad. In the early years it was difficult for them because we were struggling to get results.
“Now they come in and we’re on an upward curve. The benchmark is set higher for them.
“The lads coming in are going to have to perform well to stay in the squad and the team.”
And O’Neill says Bosnia and Herzegovina will pose his side a threat at Windsor Park.
“We don’t know what to expect from them. They have a new coach Robert Prosinečki and I think he will set them up the way ne did with azerbaijan - but with respect to Azerbijan - he now has better players.
“I am expecting an open game and I think the balll will be in play for long periods.
“There will be fluency in their game, they have good midfield players .
“But I think experience is very important but equally as you come in as a new coach the players will be trying to prove something to the new manager.
“It is also an exciting time for them. They narrowly missed out on qualifying for the last two competitions.
“So there new coach will believe they are capable of having a good Nations League and qualifying for the Euros.
“We expect a very tough but I believe with the preparation we have had we are ready for the challenge they will bring.
“And we’re still not strong in terms of our depth. We’ve not leaving players out of the squad who are playing at a good level.
“We can’t manufacture players. We have 25 players here, and outside of those players there aren’t any making a big enough impact with their clubs to merit being part of the squad at this moment in time.
“The number of players outside the squad, I could count them on two hands. It’s not like we have 20 or 30 players on the periphery of things.
“The opportunity will be there for the younger players if they do emerge, but at this minute I’m clinging on to hope.”