Belfast Telegraph

Better late than never as Lafferty's strike keeps Northern Ireland finals dream alive

Northern Ireland 1-1 Hungary

By Steven Beacom

Kyle Lafferty's crusade to take Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals continues. What a hero he has become for the country. He has been stepping up for Northern Ireland all campaign and he was at it again last night.

In injury time. In the nick of time. What a dramatic finish with the home side down to 10 men following Chris Baird's controversial sending off.

Lafferty netted in the 93rd minute to earn a 1-1 draw with Hungary at Windsor Park. It was his seventh goal in Group F and the most important yet keeping Northern Ireland top of the table and critically four points ahead of third placed Hungary with just two games to go.

Remember the top two automatically qualify. Victory at home to Greece next month will see Michael O'Neill's men make it to France.

Alternatively two draws in the final fixtures against the Greeks and away to Finland will do it because Northern Ireland have a better head-to-head record against Hungary, regardless if they win their remaining games.

Let's face it, we would all have taken that position when Northern Ireland's quest to qualify began last year.

It was supposed to be all about the win last night. The one that would see O'Neill's side create history and become the first Northern Ireland team to reach the glamour stages of the European Championships.

In the end the Green and White Army were celebrating a draw like they had just won millions on the lottery.

That's how crucial Lafferty's last-gasp strike was.

Unfortunately he won't be available for the match with Greece after collecting his third booking of the campaign. He is not the only influential player suspended for the Belfast clash on October 8.

Lafferty, Conor McLaughlin and Baird will all be unavailable when the Greeks roll into town.

That will mean big changes in defence, midfield and attack for what will be another massive fixture.

And O'Neill will have a huge call to make in the goalkeeping department as well after Michael McGovern's howler allowed Hungary to score the opening goal of the game.

On 74 minutes McGovern, chosen ahead of fellow Fermanagh man Roy Carroll, allowed Balazs Dzsudzsak's free-kick to drop from his hands, leaving Richard Guzmics with a tap-in.

The goal was timed the same as David Healy's strike to beat England at Windsor Park exactly a decade ago.

Cruel irony.

It was a desperate moment for McGovern, who had performed well when Carroll was injured for June's scoreless draw against Romania and kept his place in Friday night's 3-1 success in the Faroes.

He knows it was an easy catch for a number one of his standard and must have feared that his error was going to see Northern Ireland's hopes of automatic qualification slip through his fingers.

More so when Baird got sent off in the 81st minute for two bookings within seconds of each other.

Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir, who had earlier cautioned Lafferty and McLaughlin to rule them out of the Greece game, showed yellow to Baird first for an off the ball challenge in Hungary's half and then the same colour for an on the ball foul in Northern Ireland's.

Much to the anger and frustration of the Northern Ireland fans Cakir couldn't get the red out of his pocket quick enough and Baird had to go.

After the match O'Neill questioned the actual ruling of the decision.

As Baird wandered into the dressing room his manager, on the touchline, was looking at a nightmare scenario rather than the dream ending he had been hoping for.

Northern Ireland were losing the match, had lost vital players for their next game and were losing their discipline.

All this after a promising first half in which Stuart Dallas excelled. He was dancing around defenders with the balance of a Strictly professional.

The Leeds winger had the fans out of their seats on a number of occasions with his vibrant display.

All that was lacking was the final ball.

In the second period the visitors were much improved and looked sure to run out victorious until you know who struck to send Windsor Park wild.

Substitute Niall McGinn had a shot saved and Lafferty pounced. Northern Ireland are still on the road to France.

Belfast Telegraph