The magnificent Stade De France, Paris, will be no place for faint Irish hearts tonight as Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad attempt to overcome France, qualify for the World Cup finals in South Africa next summer — and collect a financial bonanza.
Conceding that Nicolas Anelka second half goal at Croke Park may have given them an Everest to climb but hopes are still alive. There is self belief — all is not lost.
The tension, particularly at the start, will be unbelievable just as it was for our Green And White Army at Wembley on the night of November 13, 1985. Remember it?
After beating Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania 1-0 in Bucharest, Northern Ireland needed to avoid defeat by England to qualify for Mexico ‘86. An intriguing situation.
There were many heroes on that pitch which had a line of frost running down its middle. Two, however, collected the supreme accolade — goalkeeper Pat Jennings and Queen’s Park Rangers centre-half Alan McDonald.
Jennings, then in Spurs reserves, and approaching his 40th birthday, had postponed retirement, after persuasion from manager Billy Bingham, until Northern Ireland’s World Cup commitments were completed. This could have been his final international appearance if they failed to go through.
England players were already Mexico-bound but suggestions they “would take it easy against fellow Brits” were quickly dispelled as they went for the jugular from the kick-off. The stadium with its twin towers, unique atmosphere and heritage — the Grand Old Lady of football now demolished — buzzed with anticipation.
It was in those critical exploratory stages that McDonald, currently Glentoran manager, revealed his defensive professionalism and know-how eliminating the threat from Kerry Dixon and predator Gary Lineker and, in the process, produced one of the finest displays by any Irish defender.
Northern Ireland’s back division faced a fierce bombardment but cometh the hour, cometh the man. Jennings, ranked among the top six most accomplished goalkeepers of all- time, was inspired from the moment he flicked Glenn Hoddle’s 30-yard shot over the bar — prelude to a sustained onslaught.
Eight minutes of the first-half remained when Hoddle floated a cross into the box but Dixon, the goal gaping in front of him, headed yards wide. Seconds later Lineker pounced and was only inches off target. As I sat in the press box I was convinced that Northern Ireland, despite a solid defensive set-up, and Jennings’ classic show, under such intensive pressure, must crack. Adding to the tension was news filtering through from Turkey that Romania led 2-0 and would qualify as Group Three runners-up to England if Northern Ireland lost. Players knew they were only 45 minutes away from making those finals . . . 45 agonising, nail-biting minutes. Would it be a case of so near so far?
Judge the English domination by the fact Northern Ireland won their FIRST two corners just after the break. This was a brief respite from the normal pattern of attack, attack, attack. Gary Stevens’ cross beat Jennings but in stepped McDonald, his back to goal, to whip it away for a corner. Surely, on the law of averages, the fortress must fall.
Manager Billy Bingham brought on Gerry Armstrong, winning his 60th cap, to provide more experience. Then Nigel Worthington came off the bench to add his expertise, while Jennings continued his heroics as he faced a shower of English arrows. And so to the 88th minute when the referee dismissed an England penalty claim after Lineker had been brought down.
I kept glancing at my watch. Slowly the minutes passed. Another let-off with seconds remaining when Jennings came off his line to flick a ball over Lineker’s head and grasp it near the penalty spot with those huge hands honed and hardened when he was a young woodcutter in Newry.
Then came that sharp burst of the whistle and it was all over. McDonald, when asked if England had taken it easy, blasted on TV: “If anyone thinks this was a fix they can come round and see me.” No one did.
Northern Ireland, newly-crowned British champions, were through to their third World Cup finals. They were going down Mexico way but that is a Memory Lane story for another day. Viva Irlanda del Norte!
ENGLAND: Shilton (Southampton), Stevens (Everton), Sansom (Arsenal), Bracewell (Everton), Fenwick (QPR), M Wright (Southampton), Hoddle (Tottenham Hotspur), Wilkins (AC Milan), Dixon (Chelsea), Lineker (Everton), Waddle (Tottenham Hotspur).
NORTHERN IRELAND: Jennings (Tottenham Hotspur), J Nicholl (WBA), Donaghy (Luton Town), McCreery (Newcastle United), McDonald (QPR), J O’Neill (Leicester City), Penney (Brighton; sub Armstrong (WBA), McIlroy (Manchester City), Quinn (Blackburn Rovers), Whiteside (Manchester United), Stewart (Newcastle United; sub Worthington (Sheffield Wednesday).
Referee: Erik Fredriksson.