Northern Ireland: ‘Win in Paris and we’ll book a first-class ticket to the moon’

Michael O’Neill’s men can stand tall against Germany after their victory in Lyon

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill celebrates after Niall McGinn scored their second goal against Ukraine. Photo: Retuters

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill celebrates after Niall McGinn scored their second goal against Ukraine. Photo: Retuters

 

Northern Ireland made the front page of L’Équipe yesterday. Paul Pogba dominated the cover of the French sports daily but eight Irish men in green shirts joined him.

The photograph was of them celebrating Niall McGinn’s goal against Ukraine in Lyon on Thursday evening and the image confirmed a statement made later by one of those in the picture, Josh Magennis.

In a way Magennis sums up Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland. The former goalkeeper-turned-striker plies his new trade with Kilmarnock at the foot of Scotland’s Premiership.

The 25-year-old from Bangor has defied expectations throughout his career and on Thursday in Lyon he came off the bench and took possession in the sixth minute of the six added on by the Czech referee. It was assumed Magennis would take the ball to the corner to waste time.

Instead Magennis went at the Ukraine defence and skipped past his marker as if he’d been watching Jimmy Johnstone videos. From there Magennis looked up and picked out Corry Evans. When Evans’s shot was blocked, McGinn stroked in the rebound. Northern Ireland had won 2-0 and 16,000 green-shirted fans erupted.

“I’ve never felt the experience I got in the changing room after the game, such a brotherhood of team-mates,” Magennis said.

“If we win in Paris, anything could happen – book a first-class ticket to the moon or something.”

From desolation in Nice to moon landings in Lyon. It’s been some trip already.

O’Neill could hardly be more grounded, but even he must be proud when hearing a player use a word like “brotherhood”.

That “win in Paris” Magennis referred to came with an “if” attached, the reason being that Germany are the opposition. After their draw with Poland, Joachim Low’s team will probably need to beat the Irish to secure top place in the group. A draw in Paris is likely to take both teams through.

This speculation alone is what O’Neill wanted. It would have been depressing going to Paris with nothing to play for. Morale would have been low. Now it’s the opposite.

Prestige

If not equals, O’Neill’s players have shown they deserve the same stage as Germany’s and the unity of purpose Magennis spoke of is a serious quality.

It was demonstrated on the pitch in qualification and it was revealed again in Lyon. O’Neill made the hard decisions only a real manager makes, the biggest being the dropping of Kyle Lafferty, his leading scorer. Even when O’Neill brought on a forward in the second half, it was Magennis rather than Lafferty.

Yet Lafferty, rather than huff, came out afterwards to say: “It’s not about me, it’s never been about me. I knew from the start of the campaign that my position wasn’t guaranteed and today’s proved it.

“I don’t think any of the lads who started deserve to be dropped. I think the performance that they put in, they probably sweated blood out there. They deserve another chance.”

Particularly generous

Conor Washington

“The front three that started against Ukraine were absolutely brilliant.

“I think every knows that Stuarty [Dallas] and I are like Dumb and Dumber. We’re probably best pals in the team and the performance he’s put in was great. I’m delighted for him too.”

This attitude takes you back to the send-off in Belfast three weeks ago. As O’Neill and his players were bid bon voyage at Windsor Park, the IFA badge appeared on the giant screen with “Together We Are One” underneath it. That message works on different levels but in playing terms, Thursday proved it’s more than a mere slogan.

As Magennis added: “Even though the personnel had changed, the fundamentals of how we play in that system were still the same. Pedal to the metal, you give everything you can, every ounce of what you’ve got, and when it’s done, there’s people to replace you.

“That’s what we have in abundance. The group dynamic we have is unbelievable, there’s no jealousy.”

So euphoric were players and staff that it went under the radar that Northern Ireland’s recent run is now one defeat in 13; they have conceded two goals in their last seven matches.

One of those responsible, Jonny Evans, shed tears in the dressing room. It was no time for statistics when he saw his younger brother Corry there.

“I don’t think anything can top that,” the senior Evans said. “I haven’t felt that emotional on a football pitch. The fact my brother was on the pitch as well made it such a great occasion.

“It was hard to talk afterwards. It’s an emotional time. With international football you are representing a whole nation and you have all your family and friends here too. The build-up to this has been out of this world and to be able to repay everyone with a victory – and the fact that I’ve been able to do that with my brother – just makes it incredible.

“I got a bit emotional as well. I hugged him after the game – and I wept!”

You cried? “Yeah.”

Did Corry cry too?

“Nah, he was like: ‘What are you crying for?’”

Defiant joy

The Irish had been provoked by the Ukrainian comment about their “scrambling” style, but the opposition were shocked by the coherent force they met. If that can be reproduced against Germany, then it could be enough to get the point that would surely take O’Neill’s squad through.

Through to the last 16. And over the moon.

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