Jubilant Northern Ireland make history at Windsor

Michael O’Neill’s side qualify for European Championships finals for first time

Northern Ireland’s Steven Davis celebrates scoring the first goal of the game.

Northern Ireland’s Steven Davis celebrates scoring the first goal of the game.

 

Northern Ireland 3 Greece 1

Windsor Park has seen so much since its opening 110 years ago - good, bad and ugly. But it has not seen this. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history they will be at the European Championships finals. And how they deserve it.

Playing jubilant football, Northern Ireland sparked a celebration reminiscent of those nights back in the 1980s when two World Cups were reached under Billy Bingham.

Steven Davis, the irrepressible captain who personifies this team, scored twice – having taken 76 caps to score five before last night. The first was an exceptional team goal that says so much about Michael O’Neill’s management. This team is about more than busting a gut. They are as sharp as O’Neill himself.

After the final whistle the squad showed their admiration for O’Neill, throwing him on their shoulders.

Earlier he had been embraced by Josh Magennis. The former Cardiff City goalkeeper, now Kilmarnock’s striker and Kyle Lafferty’s stand-in had nodded in the second goal on 49 minutes. It was his first at this level. Magennis ran like the wind to his manager.

When he went off Magennis was replaced by Liam Boyce from Ross County. When Paddy McNair went off he was replaced by Luke McCullough of Doncaster Rovers. O’Neill has such players thriving at a level way above their weekly football. Because of his wit, imagination and discipline the squad has the feel of a club team.

Complications in his team selection had not dampened the happy tension at Windsor Park. Before kick-off they were belting out the adopted anthem, Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, and there were even tricolours on view – French.

Reshuffled team

Craig Cathcart, doing well at Watford this season, stepped in at centre-back, McNair came in for McLaughlin and Evans’s younger brother, Corry, now of Blackburn Rovers, was in midfield beside the captain Davis. Up front Magennis replaced Lafferty as expected.

The re-jig could have interrupted Northern Ireland’s flow but it did not. Pressing with verve, there were three home corners in the first five minutes and from the third Oliver Norwood hit the side-netting. This was O’Neill’s driven personality on display.

The story of Greece’s implosion in these qualifiers is as dramatic as the Northern Irish rise. Here they were, bottom of the group, on to their third manager and yet had three Champions League players in the starting XI.

One was Kostas Mitroglou, the Fulham striker now on loan at Benfica. He played in their Champions League win at Atletico Madrid last week.

Shaken nerves

Amid all the talk of spirit, one factor overlooked in Northern Ireland’s climb has been their willingness and ability to play sharp attacking, feet-first football.

The opening goal was exhibit A in that regard. O’Neill had had a decision to make on his goalkeeper, too. After Michael McGovern’s fumble against Hungary here last month, the manager could have changed his man. O’Neill stood by him and must have been delighted when McGovern made a brave 33rd-minute punch clear.

Two minutes later, Northern Ireland scored.

Davis took possession 30 yards out. He looked up, but did not rush, and found Evans with a square-ish pass.. Surveying his options, Evans selected an exquisite diagonal pass that found Stuart Dallas roaming behind the Greece left-back.

Dallas, like Davis and Evans, kept calm. He slid a pass across the six-yard box to where Davis had sprinted forward – he met the ball and stuck it away. The place went mad.

‘Doing the bouncy’

The Irish attacked again from the restart and won another corner. Norwood, so influential, took it and at the near post, Magennis met it. The ball seemed to loop up in the air but when it came down the ball was in the back of the Greece net and Magennis was charging 50 yards down the touchline to embrace his manager.

Ten minutes later, Northern Ireland’s happy fate was sealed. Again it was Davis, this time reacting to a cleared Chris Brunt corner with a 12-yard header that soared into the far corner.

Greece nabbed a late consolation when Christos Aravidis tapped in, but they were well-beaten already. They had come out of Pot One when the draw was made, the Irish from Pot Five, but it is Northern Ireland who are going to France.

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