The lights were on, but the party was well and truly over.
There was no World Cup celebration in Prague last night.
Instead both the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland played out a boring scoreless dead rubber in freezing temperatures inside the ultra modern Synot Tip Arena.
As expected, with only three strikers available and one of those returning after three months out injured, Nigel Worthington opted to go with a five man midfield leaving David Healy battling alone up front and Chris Baird playing the holding role in midfield.
Niall McGinn and Ryan McGivern both made their first competitive starts for their country and it was actually McGivern’s first game of the season as he is yet to feature for loan club Leicester City this term.
The game played in bitterly cold conditions took nearly 39 minutes to warm up.
There was no real urgency to the match and it was flat for most of the first-half, both teams living off scraps and only creating half-chances, but Baird was immense in midfield, breaking up play and doing his job perfectly.
Marek Jankulovski’s marauding runs down the left flank were worrying at times, however, Damien Johnson did well tracking back to help Gareth McAuley.
Steve Davis was attempting to pull the strings in midfield by giving the ball to McGinn at every opportunity while Healy seemed to be fighting a lost cause upfront.
In the last six minutes of the half, the game finally sprung to life. And McGinn will never have a better chance to open his international goalscoring account than when he failed to make a decent connection after being put through by Davis. He chipped a delightful ball into the box and with Cech rushing out McGinn failed to divert it and the Chelsea goalkeeper managed to claw it away for a corner.
McAuley was then fortunate not to concede a penalty after clumsy challenge on David Jarolim, but French referee Laurent Duhamel waved away the Czech protests. Johnson then came to Northern Ireland’s rescue when he cleared the ball off the line from a Tomas Sivok glancing header at a corner.
At the start of the second half the Northern Ireland objective was simple — get the ball to the flying McGinn as he certainly had the beating of full back Zdenek Pospech. He enjoyed a few tantalising runs and then after racing into the Czech box he slipped the ball past Cech, but also the far post.
The Czechs suddenly started to spread the ball about and play decent football, but the Northern Ireland defence stood up to the challenge well and Maik Taylor ,apart from tipping the ball over the bar from an inswinging corner, was never really tested.
Healy’s miserable World Cup campaign came to an end on 68 minutes when he was replaced by Warren Feeney. Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky was expected to control the midfield, but he was virtually non-existent and it was not a surprise he was replaced with 18 minutes left.
And his team-mate Milan Baros wasn’t much better. He was getting frustrated at his lack of opportunities and was booked for a late challenge on Aaron Hughes.
Suddenly two chances came his way, but he dragged a half volley horribly wide from just inside the box and then after a wonderful curling cross from Jankulovski, Baros failed to connect with the goal at his mercy.
The Czechs now had the upper hand so Worthington decided to bring on fresh legs in the form of Michael O’Connor and Andy Kirk for Grant McCann and Damien Johnson. But it was still all Czech Republic. In the final 10 minutes the Czechs bombarded Northern Ireland’s goal, but the back four of McAuley, Hughes, Stephen Craigan and McGivern were determined to come away with a clean sheet and they managed to always make that last ditch tackle or win the header in the box.
Taylor did have to make one good save after a thunderous shot from Jankulovski. The Czechs kept the pressure on to the death, but Northern Ireland held out and came away with a credible draw — an achievement considering there were so many players missing out.
Fourth place in Group Three is not where Northern Ireland would have wanted to finish, but if there was one major positive form last night’s encounter then it was the emergence of Celtic winger McGinn.
He tortured the Czech defence with his trickery and mazy runs. We may have finally found a winger to replace Keith Gillespie.
Roll on the European Championship qualifiers
CZECH REPUBLIC: Cech, Hubnik, Jankulovski, Necid (Hlousek 58), Rosicky (Stajner 72), Pospech, Plasil, Jarolim (Papadopulos 82), Baros, Hubschman, Sivok. Subs: Kinsky, Grygera, Rozehnal, Pudil.
NORTHERN IRELAND: Taylor, McAuley, McGivern, Hughes, Craigan, Baird, Johnson (Kirk 82), Davis, Healy (Feeney 68), McCann (O’Connor 80), McGinn, Hughes. Subs: Tuffey, Coates, Mannus, McCourt.
Referee: Laurent Duhamel (France).