Nortrhern Ireland's starting line-up weren’t the substandard lot we’d feared
One quick look at the Northern Ireland bench was enough to spark fear into even the most optimistic of supporters.
Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty, — arguably the biggest hope of ending a miserable seven-match drought in front of goal — Manchester United regular Jonny Evans and the silky Sammy Clingan were sitting alongside Nigel Worthington. The only person missing was Paddy McCourt, who still can’t break into the squad to the dismay and surprise of many.
Evans suffered a groin injury in the build-up to the Euro 2012 opener but astonishingly, Lafferty and Clingan were dropped.
As a nation held its breath, three mainstays in the line-up were nervously kicking every ball from the sidelines.
This was a gamble that had to pay off. Northern Ireland do not start campaigns off well — fact.
And the signs weren’t exactly promising. While Worthington said the right things and issued the pre-qualifying rallying call, the general vibe around the camp didn’t scream positivity.
That wouldn’t matter a jot if the shot-shy side came up trumps when it mattered most, of course. How many times have the players been all singing, all dancing ahead of a tournament, only for a first day defeat to give the brimming confidence an almighty battering?
That had to change in Slovenia last night.
Thankfully the 800 fans who made the trek to Maribor from Graz, Vienna and goodness knows where else were in good mood pre kick-off.
Rarely does a home nation run our vociferous lot close in the singing stakes but the noise and colour created by Slovenia’s fans was spectacular.
Inside the Ljudski VRT Stadium was a cacophony of noise throughout the match.
You couldn’t help but think Belfast — or wherever a national stadium will ever be erected in Northern Ireland — would be all the better for a similar theatre for football.
If the on-looking Irish FA ever sort themselves out, maybe the atmosphere for Northern Ireland home games could reach another level.
Alas, that seems as much a long shot as Worthington’s men qualifying for their first major tournament since 1986 but there’s always hope.
On the pitch, the gamble was seemingly paying off. A hard-working and energetic performance frustrated the home side.
David Healy, surprisingly in the starting line-up was harshly booked and was deep in conversation with Romanian referee Pavel Balaj as he re-emerged from the tunnel for the second-half. Nothing seems to be falling for the record goal-scorer at minute, or the last two years for that matter.
He never stopped running and at times was over-eager but the ball will just not drop at his feet in the box where he has rarely let his country down.
As the minutes ticked down and a few scares were evaded — thanks to debutant Craig Cathcart’s interventions — focus shifted back to that talent pool of a bench and Lafferty replaced a cramp-ridden Healy and Corry Evans went on for Grant McCann.
Within three minutes of the substitutions the home crowd were silenced at last when youngsters Cathcart and Evans combined for the Manchester United kid to score the winner.
The Green and White pocket of fans soon became shirtless in wild celebrations as Lafferty almost planted new hero Evans through an advertising board.
There was even time for Johnny Gorman to become officially Northern Ireland’s property after he was introduced with five minutes to go.
I knew that bench would come up trumps.