Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Little hope for our heartbroken players

On Wednesday night Northern Ireland were gunning for top spot in Group F.

Today we are battling it out for third place and hopes of making it to our first European Championships are in tatters after an Icelandic meltdown in Reykjavik.

A win would have secured top spot, but the agonising 2-1 defeat merely confirms the worst fears of the Green and White Army.

Forget Vienna and Berne, and instead think of Spain and Portugal.

For unless there is a miracle of biblical proportions, we will not be gracing the Euro 2008 finals.

Any visits to Expedia and Lastminute.com should be confined to the sunnier climes of Europe's holiday hot-spots.

Qualification was there for the taking, but Nigel Worthington's men froze in the dying minutes to hand Iceland an undeserved victory.

Keith Gillespie's cruel own-goal sentenced Northern Ireland to their second defeat in five days and dashed any lingering hopes of mixing it with Europe's finest next summer.

It could have been oh so different. If only we'd taken advantage of the possession and opportunities that presented themselves.

Next opponents Sweden will not be quaking in their boots, rather they'll be expecting to see off the challenge of Spain to top the group.

Ironically a win of any sort would have seen Northern Ireland rise to the summit but instead we have been left licking our wounds and likely to challenge an improving Denmark for third position.

This is the realisation we face and it's understandably heart-breaking.

The players gave their all on Wednesday, it just wasn't good enough.

Our players may be optimistic but surely it is only false hope.

Nights to remember at Windsor Park have been the story of our success but away from home, apart from a win in Liechtenstein and a hard-fought draw in Denmark, away days must - and have to - improve.

In the manager's words, it's going to be a tall order to overcome Sweden, Denmark and Spain in quick succession.

Anything else will not be sufficient.

Players and manager alike have painted a picture of hope and determination, but any more performances like Riga and the first half of Reykjavik and the closest we'll get to the finals is an appointment on the referee's list.

Passion was questioned on Saturday and it was answered in defiant style in Iceland. That though, was not enough to secure the much-needed victory in the northern-most country in Europe.

Next month's clash in Sweden will be an anti-climax; it should have been the contest between the top two titans in Group F.

For Sweden, a win will all but secure the travel documents to Austria and Switzerland; for Northern Ireland a win will restore pride and interest in a flagging campaign.

But today that is wishful thinking, especially with stand-in skipper Chris Baird and striker Warren Feeney banned for the Stockholm showpiece.

Our reputation and ranking has improved beyond all belief in the past two years. It's been an incredible ride ? derailed on occasion ? but let it not end prematurely.

We can only live in hope. More performances like the second half last night might just bring back the feeling of achievement to the Green and White Army.

The challenge has been set, we're just going to have to do it the hard way.

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