In Pictures: Poland 1 Northern Ireland 1
“Anything to declare?” said the voice at Belfast International Airport. “Yes,” said Nigel Worthington. “We haven’t won a big World Cup qualifier away from home in 25 years.”
“How much baggage Sir?”
“Just the emotional baggage of struggling to win away from Windsor Park,” replied Worthington.
The Northern Ireland manager didn’t utter those words. Nigel is more a glass half full kind of guy, which is just as well if he is carrying our World Cup hopes on his shoulders.
Everyone is on the plane and in upbeat mood, ready for our Group Three qualifying campaign to really take off.
Fasten your seatbelts boys, there could be turbulence on the way.
Indeed, there was some turbulence on the flight to Poland and that’s when some of the Northern Ireland players looked terrified. When the action got under way in the Slaski Stadium, they held their nerve and remained calm, there were no signs of panic although Kyle Lafferty, unfortunately, later made an emergency exit.
Worthington called for bodies on the line and that’s what he got.
As Northern Ireland embarked on another daunting foreign adventure it was impossible to ignore the reality of just how small our nation is.
We call it ‘Our Wee Country’ for a reason. From schoolboy level up to the senior international panel, Northern Ireland will always lose out in the numbers game, leaving us to fight against the odds.
On Saturday night our country with a population of just over 1.7 million went toe to toe with a country boasting a population of 38.5 million.
Too much of our young footballing talent is not fulfilled, while players like Jonny Evans and their families have to go the extra mile to realise a dream.
The influx of foreign talent into the British game has made it harder for our young players to establish a full-time career in the game and that’s why we should be grateful for those like Steven Davis and David Healy who have kept climbing the ladder when an easier option might have been to leap off it.
Davis once again oozed class and quality. When the Rangers midfielder has the ball at his feet you know something might happen. He’s the perfect link between defence and attack and on a fantastic playing surface his touch, vision, work-rate, movement and passing was a joy to behold.
Gareth McAuley produced one of the best performances from a Northern Ireland defender in years. The Ipswich Town skipper seemed to be on the end of every cross into the box while any Poland player waiting to pull the trigger was soon knocked off balance by the big man.
The first half performance needed to be impressive and it was while Poland didn’t waken up until they fell a goal behind.
In the opening exchanges it was difficult to know who the home side was. Northern Ireland were solid at the back and threatening on the counter attack.
Lafferty must have shared breakfast with Usain Bolt as he was leaving Polish defenders behind as he made several bursts forward.
After blasting a shot just wide, he did find the net, drilling the ball past his Old Firm rival Artur Boruc.
His seventh international goal, which arrived on 37 minutes, stunned the home fans but they perhaps saw it coming.
The Poles finally came to the party but Jonny Evans was alert to head the ball off the line from a Ludovic Obraniak shot.
Obraniak then took out his frustration on the Northern Ireland post with a powerful free-kick.
After the break Lafferty’s injury was a painful blow to the knee and he can now expect a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Although this draw felt like a win to the fans, it did come at a cost as Lafferty’s injury is a massive blow to our qualification hopes.
With him off the field, Poland began to regain the initiative but Northern Ireland rode their luck.
Lafferty’s replacement Martin Paterson will be disappointed he failed to convert a good chance in the 64th minute when Davis sent him sprinting goalwards but he will get a quick chance to make up for it on Wednesday night against Slovakia.
Poland had not lost a competitive international at home in three years and they managed to hold onto that record when Mariusz Lewandowski poked home an equaliser 10 minutes before the finish.
Goalkeeper Maik Taylor may have lost the number one spot at Birmingham City to Joe Hart but he is still the first name on Worthington’s teamsheet and on top of plucking crosses out of the air he produced a superb save to foil Roger Guerreiro.
Paterson worked Boruc again before a final few frantic minutes when a late winner for the home side would have been a travesty of justice.
Of course these players deserve to play in the final stages of a World Cup but natural talent is no guarantee of entry, otherwise George Best would have made it.
Even if Worthington’s men don’t make it to South Africa, they have restored pride after a woeful start to the campaign and proved their commitment to the cause.
Every Northern Ireland player has to climb mountains. Sometimes those mountains will seem as big as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa, dwarfing the region’s other peaks at 19,340 feet.
As Aaron Hughes led his team out at the Slaski Stadium, he will have known the supreme mental and physical test that awaited him.
He was born in Cookstown and, like any other player who has ever donned the Northern Ireland shirt, his job description is a simple one — to fight against the odds.
A point was needed to keep the dream alive and it was mission accomplished.
As former Northern Ireland skipper Alan McDonald would say, anyone who thought it was an easy mission should venture down to the pitch to tell him.