Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Stephen Craigan: Northern Ireland can be proud of performance against Portugal

Northern Ireland's Niall McGinn scores the opening goal during the World Cup Group F Qualifying match at the Estadio do Dragao, Porto, Portugal. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday October 16, 2012. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire.
Northern ireland's Niall McGinn celebrates with team mate Kyle Lafferty (centre) after scoring during the World Cup Group F Qualifying match at the Estadio do Dragao, Porto, Portugal.
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -16th October 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeWorld cup Qualifier Group F Portugal v Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland ÊKyle Lafferty and Portugal Ruben Micael during Tuesday night's World Cup Group F qualifiier at Dragao Stadium, Porto.

Let’s be honest, when the fixtures were released for our Brazil 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign the enormity of our task looked massive as we faced Russia and Portugal away from home in two of our first three games.

After the draw with Luxembourg last month many people wrote off the players, but last night they showed unbelievable character to bounce back and produce a performance that made us all proud to be from Northern Ireland.

I have seen enough over the opening three games to feel optimistic about the rest our campaign and so should all Northern Ireland fans.

On a night when Portugal’s hero Ronaldo celebrated winning his 100th cap and with all the media hysteria surrounding that it would have been easy for the players to admire him and capitulate in the cauldron of the Dragao Stadium in Porto.

They didn’t and showed the battling spirit that has been long associated with Northern Ireland footballers.

Players liked Oliver Norwood and Niall McGinn enhanced their reputations and others like Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans confirmed what we already knew about them — that they are wonderful players and love playing for Northern Ireland.

Roy Carroll was an inspiration too.

He is a vastly experienced goalkeeper, having played in the Champions League this season for Olympiakos and with Manchester United earlier in his career — and he called upon all of that on Tuesday night.

It would have been gutting to come away with nothing from the game and it’s amazing to think that we have gone to Portugal and come away disappointed to have only drawn the game.

So what next for Northern Ireland?

Well our next four qualifying games are all at Windsor Park and there will be a determination from the manager through to the players to start winning football matches again.

Winning is what drives players on and what makes fans want to come to watch the matches.

Unfortunately we haven’t had enough wins recently and that’s frustrating to say the least, but the one thing Northern Ireland fans have in abundance is loyalty and our team needs you more than ever.

Pride and passion is the minimum we expect from our players when they pull on the green jersey and I feel there’s a chance for the players to repay the fans’ loyalty, starting with Azerbaijan next month.

There’s no better feeling as a Northern Ireland player than winning an international game under the lights at Windsor Park and worryingly some of the current squad haven’t experienced that yet.

Fixture wise Michael O’Neill has had a tough start considering we’ve been to Holland, Russia and Portugal in the last six months.

I know he’s desperate to make progress and hopefully the four home games can give us the springboard to turn round our fortunes and build some momentum.

O’Neill is a realist and understands where we are in international football terms at the minute, but he also knows where he wants to get to.

From speaking to the players in the squad they feel one positive result can ignite us again, sometimes that’s all it takes and I believe we’re not far away.

Last night can be that result that they’ve all been craving.

O’Neill has been working behind the scenes at all levels to put structures in place that will stand us in good stead for the future.

That’s key for me, we can’t just focus on the short term goals but we must look at the bigger picture right down to 12 and 13 year olds.

If we can guide them and mould them to be better at that age both on and off the pitch our full international side can have a constant flow of players coming through every year.

So as we get ready for as an important four games as I can remember in international football, I’m confident the squad can give us hope in the months ahead.

If O’Neill can have a full squad to choose from there’s no doubt the players can lift us from the doldrums and put Northern Ireland football back on the map.

Bring on Azerbaijan I say!

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