Ask Bryan Hamilton to recall the highlight of his international career and a special moment from 36 years ago still burns bright. The former Northern Ireland midfielder scored a modest four goals in 50 appearances for his country, but one of them – the winner in a 1-0 victory over Yugoslavia on 16 April 1975 – brings to mind "the most emotional evening" he ever experienced in football.
Civil unrest in Northern Ireland had forced the Irish Football Association (IFA) to schedule international home fixtures at various venues in England – Coventry, Hull, London, Liverpool and Sheffield – between 1971 and 1975. The game against Yugoslavia, a 1976 UEFA European Championship qualifier, was the team's first on home soil in four years.
"That goal is one of the highlights of my career as a footballer – a very special moment," Hamilton told UEFA.com as he remembered that night in Belfast. "It was also the most emotional evening I have encountered in football.
"We were effectively coming home so it was a massive night for the team and our supporters," continued the 64-year-old, who made his name in England with Ipswich Town FC and Everton FC. "We couldn't do anything else but win the game. I remember looking around Windsor Park before kick-off and it was packed.
To score the winner in a 1-0 win in front of that crowd? Well, it was just fairy-tale stuff. Yugoslavia were such a good team at that time with very technically gifted players, so to beat them was a big result."
That success remains the only time in ten attempts that Northern Ireland have defeated the former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro, or indeed Serbia. Hamilton – who later managed Northern Ireland from 1994 to 1997 – is predicting a "very tough game" when Nigel Worthington's men face Serbia in Belgrade in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying Group C on Friday.
"It won't be easy," he said. "Serbia are a young, physically imposing team with a number of very talented players, so it will be a big task." Northern Ireland are unbeaten in three qualifiers following a 1-0 victory in Slovenia and a 0-0 draw with Italy in Belfast, although the sequence also includes a 1-1 draw in the Faroe Islands in October.
"Nigel will be pleased with a terrific win in Slovenia and the home draw with the Italians, who were better than I had anticipated," said Hamilton. "The draw in the Faroes was a disappointment and I know Nigel will look at that game as two points dropped. It was a frustrating result. It will be tough against Serbia, but it's important we produce a good performance and record a positive result in Belgrade if we want to kick on in the group."
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