Northern Ireland 2 Finland 1
They were handing out leaflets mentioning sin and Satan on Olympia Drive adjacent to Windsor Park on Sunday, but inside the old stadium being redeveloped they were thinking "Hallelujah" and singing:
“We’re supposed to be in church.”
It was a happy chorus as the first-ever Northern Ireland international on a Belfast Sunday was going the way locals wanted. In the space of five first-half minutes Kyle Lafferty scored two smart goals – his fourth and fifth in qualification – and Michael O'Neill's maturing team can now begin to calculate a points tally that might take them to France next summer.
The North have never reached the European Championship finals – they have not made any finals since 1986 – and O’Neill thinks 18 points should be enough to take the automatic second place.
Crucially, O’Neill’s players are eight points ahead of the Finns in fourth place and now face group leaders Romania in June here. Romania away is the only game of five that Northern Ireland have not won and as O’Neill said: “June becomes massive for us now because if we win it’d be hard for the players to think they wouldn’t make it [to France].
“We’re in a really strong position but I’m not thinking of France, I’m thinking of Belfast in June. That’s as far as I’m looking ahead. The players have a chance to go top of the group.”
On a day when gales battered the two-sided stadium, restricting the attendance to 10,000, O’Neill was delighted at the collective performance, but he has long known the difference a goalscorer makes and so Kyle Lafferty again stood out.
Unable to keep a place at Norwich City in the Championship, Lafferty cannot stop scoring for Northern Ireland in the European Championships.
Sent on loan from east Anglia to Turkish club Rizespor at the end of January, Lafferty scored for the fourth and fifth time in Euro 2016 qualification on Sunday. The only game he has not scored in was Romania away, though he played well there.
Lafferty struck in the 33rd and 38th minutes to take his international tally to 14. In the Northern Ireland's list of all-time scorers only David Healy has more.
When he departed with 11 minutes of normal time left, Lafferty was given an ovation and the celebratory atmosphere was only briefly interrupted when Finland substitute Berat Sadik stabbed a shot past Roy Carroll in injury-time. But a Finnish equaliser was not deserved and it never came.
Lafferty was not alone in meriting an honourable mention.
could have been playing right back for Fleetwood Town in League One, but the 23-year-old from Belfast has established himself in O’Neill’s defence. He has held his own at international level and was again impressive.
McLaughlin's mobility and maturity meant that O'Neill was not tempted to play the vastly experienced Aaron Hughes there instead and O'Neill had the most tender selection problem of his time in charge by omitting Hughes altogether to accommodate Jonny Evans.
Evans and McLaughlin justified O'Neill's decisions and in midfield – for 45 minutes until he felt his hamstring – there was a captain's display from Steven Davis. When he departed Oliver Norwood stepped up.
All across the park there were capable individuals and wide on the right, in front of McLaughlin, was Jamie Ward. The right was the source of both goals and of a ninth-minute header from Chris Baird that was disallowed.
That looked a dubious call and it seemed it could divert the home team. But after dealing with a couple of dangerous Finland attacks, the North started to make progress.
It came down the right. Lafferty was fouled and Norwood delivered a curling free-kick. It was headed half-clear. Niall McGinn got to the loose ball first and his header back in was met by Lafferty whose volley flew past Finland’s goalkeeper.
Five minutes later and it was 2-0. Again the goal came from the right. After Ward appeared to have stumbled, he recovered to find McLaughlin. His cross was flicked by Lafferty into the same corner where his previous volley had just nestled.
“We never lose on a Sunday,” sang the Windsor Kop.
NORTHERN IRELAND (4-1-4-1): Carroll; C McLaughlin, McAuley, J Evans, Brunt; Baird; Ward, Davis (C Evans, halftime), Norwood, McGinn (Dallas, 64); Lafferty (Magennis, 79).
FINLAND (4-3-2-1): Hradecky; Sorsa, Toivio (Arajuuri, half-time), Moisander, Uronen; Ring, Mattila, Sparv; Hämäläinen (Pohjanpalo, 42) Eremenko; Pukki (Sadik, 70).
Referee: S Marciniak (Poland)