Northern Ireland v Faroe Islands: Paddy McCourt inspires our boys to memorable win
Northern Ireland 4 Faroe Islands 0: Aaron Hughes must be wondering what he has to do to claim the spotlight.
The Northern Ireland skipper waited 13 years on the international stage and it took 77 caps for him to score his first goal, but his magical moment was a fading memory by the time Paddy McCourt lit up Windsor Park.
Who cares if the Celtic player is lazy — a criticism often levelled at the 27-year-old — if he can play this beautiful game.
McCourt hit a stunning second half brace and Steven Davis also struck a sensational second as Nigel Worthington’s side turned on the style.
Are we any closer to knowing if Northern Ireland will make it to Poland and Ukraine? No, but at least this morale-boosting victory keeps the dream alive.
Failure to win was not an option and Worthington breathed a huge sigh of relief after his troops kept their balance on this particular |banana skin.
Failure to record a crucial victory last night would have left him on thin ice regarding any future managerial aspirations on the international stage.
As it turned out, Northern Ireland live to fight another day and a new star was born in the shape of McCourt.
The absence of the suspended Chris Brunt and injured Kyle Lafferty cranked up the pressure to an extraordinary level.
However, the Scandinavian minnows didn’t count on that ace marksman Hughes and McCourt terrifying their defence.
Worthington gave McCourt his first competitive international start, while Chris Baird was handed the right-back role and Corry Evans made his 12th appearance in an unusual attacking role in a 4-3-3 formation.
The hosts wanted the early breakthrough and it arrived from a very unusual source. Skipper Hughes led by example by settling the nerves in dream fashion.
Sammy Clingan’s left wing corner was superbly knocked back into the danger area by Gareth McAuley, the visiting defence stood still and the Fulham defender swung his boot at it, the ball crossing the line with a little help of the post.
The underdogs offered little bite, only one ambitious long-range effort failing to trouble keeper Lee Camp.
Worthington’s men looked comfortable, but they were given a real scare in the 24th minute when Newcastle United youngster Johan Simun Edmundsson was allowed time and space to aim a low drive goalwards, but Camp made a comfortable block.
At the other end, David Healy’s header from Grant McCann’s cross went straight into the arms of keeper Jakup Mikkelsen. On 31 minutes, McCann claimed he was tugged back in the penalty area as he hit the deck, but there was no significant contact.
McCourt was impressive when his feet where doing the talking, but referee Emir Aleckovic didn’t take kindly to the former Derry City winger’s verbal utterings and a yellow card was brandished.
Northern Ireland came within inches of doubling their lead in the 42nd minute and McCourt was at his creative best as his dangerous run and set-up invited Healy to shoot. The Rangers man caught the ball sweetly, but keeper Mikkelsen dived to his left to touch the ball onto the base of the post. Worthington was forced to make a change at the break with Craig Cathcart replacing McAuley, who had a virus.
The Blackpool man went to left-back with Jonny Evans moving into the centre of the defence alongside Hughes.
On 58 minutes, the Faroe Islands nearly struck an equaliser. Hjalgrim Elttor went on a superb run and poked the ball through for Daniel Udsen, but the left winger drove his shot over the bar when he should have worked Camp.
Niall McGinn then replaced Corry Evans and the Celtic winger, on loan at Brentford, provided the assist for Davis to beautifully fire in the second goal.
In the 66th minute, Sammy Clingan fed McGinn and his pass inside was met by Davis who lifted a perfectly executed shot from outside the penalty area into the corner of the Faroes net.
If that goal captured the fans’ imagination, Northern Ireland’s third got the standing ovation it deserved.
McCourt’s trickery on the wing continued when he linked up with Jonny Evans, the Manchester United defender flicked the ball back and McCourt jinked past the defence and produced a stunning finish.
Three minutes before the finish, the Faroes defence looked on in amazement as McCourt twisted, turned and beat Mikkelsen with a chip the world’s finest strikers would have been proud of.
A Euro 2012 qualifying campaign that started with so much promise after the stunning 1-0 win against Slovenia in Maribor is still alive, though it’s about to get even more tense.
NORTHERN IRELAND: Camp, Baird, J Evans, McAuley (Cathcart 45), Clingan, C Evans (McGinn 59), Davis, Healy (Ward 84), McCourt, McCann, Hughes. Subs (not used): Mannus, McGivern, Thompson, Gorman.
FAROE ISLANDS: Mikkelsen, Tor Naes, J Davidsen, Baldvinsson, Gregersen, Udsen, Benjaminsen, Olsen (Danielsen 75), Holst (Hansen 66), Edmundsson, Elttor (Mouritsen 75) Subs not used: Torgard, V Davidsen, Faero, Lokin.
Referee: Emir Aleckovic (Bosnia-Herzergovina).