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Norman Whiteside: Michael's brave decisions paid off for Ukraine win

By Norman Whiteside

Brilliant. That's how I would sum up Northern Ireland's performance and the feeling after that wonderful 2-0 win over Ukraine.

The result has sparked new life into our Euro 2016 dream and because of the expansion of the tournament and the fact that third place in the group could get through there is now real hope of making it into the last 16.

What a great team display it was from Northern Ireland in Lyon and manager Michael O'Neill deserves all the credit going.

Not only did he make five changes in personnel after the 1-0 defeat to Poland in the opening game, he altered the shape of the team.

You could say that he was going back to the tried and trusted formation that got Northern Ireland to the finals, but I believe it was a hugely bold move - and brave as well.

Let's face it, the changes could have totally backfired on him and although he could have said 'at least we went for it' Michael would have been in the firing line.

I said after the Poland game that we needed to change things and get forward more if we were going to do anything in the tournament. I've no doubt that Michael knew that himself and the players knew too that they didn't do themselves justice against the Poles.

Michael took the bull by the horns, made the changes - including leaving out Kyle Lafferty, when many thought he was an automatic choice - and the boys went out and did the rest.

Jonny Evans was outstanding again and Gareth McAuley made a huge impact at both ends of the pitch.

I don't think anyone would have anticipated Michael making so many changes. Behind the scenes in the ITV studios we had guys trying to work out if any manager had made as many as five changes after the first game of a tournament. We also tried in vain to find out if there was a problem with Kyle - but in the end his absence didn't matter. The team didn't miss him and who would have thought we would be saying that?

I'm sure Michael thought long and hard about the decisions he made and no wonder he was jumping for joy at the final whistle.

We started much better than against Poland, because we'd sat back in that game and even though the first half was a bit dull we had the best chance - if you could call it a chance - from Gareth McAuley at a corner.

When we got the free kick a couple of minutes into the second half Oliver Norwood curled a brilliant ball into the box and Gareth's header was even better.

The angle that Norwood played the ball in at was so hard to defend against and it didn't help Ukraine that three of their defenders were arguing over which of them was going to mark McAuley just as the free kick was about to be taken.

It really annoys me how often players at this level can't clear the first defender with a free kick or a corner, but I am delighted that Norwood did!

It was a cracking goal and for Niall McGinn to get the second late on just made things even better.

It is great too that both McAuley and McGinn have scored goals on the big international stage after starting their careers in the Irish League. Don't underestimate what a big thing that is for the league and it should give every young player at that level some hope that they can make it too.

Now the team - and the supporters too - will go to Paris on Tuesday on a high and with belief that they can get something out of the game against Germany that would hopefully put us through to the last 16.

Yes, they are the world champions, they are very strong and you always see Germany's name in the semi-finals of the major touraments, but from what I have seen from this Northern Ireland team, they don't want to be leaving the tournament early.

Before anyone asks, although I have a record of scoring against the Germans in the past, I'm not available for this one.

Speaking of the 1980s, when I played in the famous win over Spain in 1982 I never thought that it would take another 34 years for a Northern Ireland team to win a match in a major tournament.

I just hope that it doesn't take another 34 years for the next one - five days would do for me.

What this group of players have done though is give the old fellas like myself the opportunity to reminisce about the times when we played, but we've had our time, we've enjoyed our pats on the back and I am only too happy to be handing things on.

Theis team has created history by getting to the European finals and I hope that there is a bit more history to come from them.


Belfast Telegraph