A lifetime of after-dinner speeches, ribbon cutting and TV appearances await goalscorers Gareth Macauley and Niall McGinn after Northern Ireland’s heroics last night, but not before Michael O’Neill’s side pushes on for a crack at Euro 2016’s knockout stages.
The three points harvested last night may prove to be enough to book passage, though a draw against Germany next Tuesday would all but guarantee their place in the last 16 on the back of the country’s first win at a major tournament since Spain were shocked in Valencia 34 years ago.
“We have given ourselves a chance,” said O’Neill. “There are lots of permutations. We knew we were in as tough a group as there is and we wanted to make sure we could go into the last game with something to play for.”
It is a remarkable turnaround for a team that was so desperately disappointing in losing their group opener to Poland in Nice last Monday and after which the players admitted, virtually to a man, they had let themselves and their supporters down. Not this time. This was an evening of redemption, one interrupted only by a barrage of hailstones that caused the game to be delayed temporarily in the second-half and one that served as an appropriate tribute to the young fan Darren Rodgers who died so tragically in Nice.
It was an evening that also witnessed a passing on of the torch. Gerry Armstrong, scorer of the country’s most famous goal when he put the ball in the Spanish net, was in Lyon to witness this modern chapter of history being written and it may be that all those heroes of ’82 find themselves in less demand on the chicken dinner circuit after this.
“We have talked about things,” said Macauley, “about leaving a legacy from this tournament and hopefully we can produce more players who can get the country to these tournaments more often …it means we’re in the competition now.”
Macauley’s 48th-minute header was the North’s first goal at a major finals since Colin Clarke netted against Spain in Guadalajara in 1986 and former Derry City player Niall McGinn sealed the win and his own place in the hall of heroes with a rebound deep in injury-time. It was no more than they deserved. Out went the cagey 5-3-1-1 that had neutered them last Monday. In its place came the trusty 4-3-3 – or 4-5-1 depending on your outlook - that served O’Neill so ably in the qualifiers. The kicker was the decision not to start Kyle Lafferty.
Lafferty had injured a groin the week before Poland and was left isolated tactically in the opener, but his omission was startling with QPR’s Conor Washington drafted in to play the lead role up front and Jamie Ward and Stuart Dallas coming in on the wings.
Also promoted was Corry Evans, younger brother of Jonny who himself switched from centre-back to left-back, while on the far side of defence was another erstwhile centre-back, the 36-year old Aaron Hughes. It was ballsy stuff from O’Neill and it paid off.
“It’s never easy,” said the manager of his selections. He added: “I just felt we needed to get more running power into our team. I had always planned to play four at the back against Ukraine because we knew the threat was down the flanks.” He also disputed the use of the word ‘dropped’ with regard to Lafferty, explaining how the striker had started just four games of club football last season and that he was never expected to pitch in with three 90-minutes performance over here.
Washington certainly gave the side legs.
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He gave notice of the North’s rediscovered positivity by haring after defenders from the kick-off and the collective followed suit. It was faster, more dynamic and it set the tone for a side which ‘L’Equipe’ had said earlier this week would need a miracle to score.
Long-range pot shots characterised the opening quarter. Dallas had the first for the North, then Serhiy Sydorchuck and Yevhen Konoplyanka a pair for the Ukrainians who dominated possession and probed frequently down the wings as expected.
That changed as the half wore on. With greater numbers stationed up the pitch, Northern Ireland were much more disposed to attack and, though there was still a tendency to rely too much on the ling ball, they did enough on the deck to provide a variety that made them far less predictable.
It was the right riposte to Ukrainian substitute Rustan Rotan who had dismissed the North’s basic, British style of football beforehand, even if O’Neill had already bitten back by pointing out that the Eastern Europeans didn’t exactly play tiki-taka either.
They were just downright poor last night.
Still, half-chances proliferated for both throughout the 96 minutes played under changing skies and conditions, but the best of them in the first 45 fell to Craig Cathcart whose superb header from a Ward cross skimmed inches past the post after 34 minutes.
The second-half picked up where the first ended with the greasy surface lubricating a box-to-box type game and one where balls spun about both penalty areas like a pinball. It actually was distinctly British in its fervour, but great fun regardless.
Well, for the North, in any case.
M McGovern, A Hughes, C Cathcart, G Macauley, J Evans, C Evans, S Davis, O Norwood, J Ward, C Washington, S Dallas. Subs
: N McGinn for Ward (69); J Magennis for Washington (83); P McNair for C Evans (92).
A Pyatov, A Fedetskiy, Y Khacheridi, Y Rakitskiy, V Shevchuk, S Sydorchuk, T Stepanenko, A Yarmolenko, V Kovalenko, Y Konoplyanka, Y Seleznov. Subs:
R Zozulya for Seleznyov (71); D Garmash for Sydorchuk (76), O Zinchenko for Kovalenko (83).
P Kralovec (Czech Republic).
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