Belfast Telegraph

Winning the only way for Northern Ireland to pay back fans

By Steven Beacom

Before last month's World Cup qualifier in Luxembourg, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill insisted it was 'payback time.'

O'Neill was referring to his and the team's desire to make up for the desperate 1-1 draw with Luxembourg at Windsor Park a year previously.

Ahead of tonight's Group F encounter in Azerbaijan, to use the manager's words, I would suggest given what happened in Luxembourg that it is 'payback time multiplied by 100!'

The shocking 3-2 defeat in the Josy Barthel Stadium still stings, infuriates and frustrates in equal measure.

It was the worst result in our history against a side who had not won a home World Cup qualifier in over 40 years and had just four full-time players in their team!

Losing to what amounted to a bunch of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers was a complete and utter embarrassment.

It wasn't just the result though. The performance was pitiful too. As was the attitude.

Sometimes in football, teams get lucky to cause a shock. Luxembourg didn't that night. Truth be told they were unfortunate not to score more with Northern Ireland run ragged.

Our team played like Ballymena United on a bad night and made Luxembourg look like Bayern Munich!

The 1,200 Northern Ireland fans in the stadium, who spent hard earned cash to make the trip, and those watching back home on television didn't deserve that.

Down the years the Green and White Army have endured some tough to take nights, but losing to Luxembourg in that manner was humiliating.

Yes, this is definitely 'payback time multiplied by 100.'

O'Neill and his players owe the Northern Ireland public and that process has to kick-off tonight.

I believe Azerbaijan are a better side than Luxembourg, but if O'Neill's team are at their sharpest both mentally and physically, Northern Ireland should not lose in Baku.

In the first game between the teams in Belfast in this qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland dominated, so much so that the great Pat Jennings said he had never seen our team create so many chances.

And remember Pat's been involved in an international or two.

The problem was the opportunities weren't being taken and until substitute David Healy netted an injury time equaliser, O'Neill's side were in line for a demoralising defeat.

Healy's not in Baku to save our bacon tonight, so others must step up – those who played in the Luxembourg debacle and those who didn't, like Chris Brunt who was suspended following his silly sending off against Portugal a few days before.

Captain Steven Davis needs to inspire those around him while Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans must stand firm at the heart of the defence. Hopefully, if under pressure, they will be given support by team-mates which criminally was absent in Luxembourg.

Martin Paterson has scored twice in his last three internationals and McAuley in his two previous Northern Ireland appearances. They'll aim to maintain that form, though others need to deliver in front of goal too.

World Cup qualification is not riding on tonight's game, but it still matters.

There are points at stake and if Northern Ireland don't get them they are in danger of finishing bottom of a group in which fourth was the minimum requirement.

There is also all that making up for Luxembourg.

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