Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Don't worry, be happy, we will have the fairytale finish after all

By Steven Beacom

At Windsor Park on Saturday night, you didn't need a knife to cut the tension. A plastic spoon would have done the job.

Credit to the Northern Ireland fans for being loud and proud against Romania, but when they weren't singing, they were sweating. Buckets.

In all my years covering the Northern Ireland football team I can rarely recall a more tense atmosphere any time the opposition attacked, both on and off the pitch.

And to think there are far more important matches on the way in the remainder of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, like the September 7 showdown with Hungary at Windsor which will effectively decide if Northern Ireland will reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup.

Note to employers around the country: "That match takes place on a Monday night...some of your employees may be off work the following day because (a) they will still be celebrating or (b) they will all be in need of a long lie down."

Seriously if the 0-0 draw with Romania on Saturday was anything to go by, Northern Ireland will be full of nervous wrecks come September.

The tension, the strain, the stress and the worry isn't surprising. After all, this matters so much to an awful lot of people. It's fine when the fans are feeling like that. The problems come when the pressure of the occasion impacts on the players.

Too many of them lacked composure against Romania, especially early on when uncharacteristic mistakes from experienced players led to chances for the away side.

Had they been more clinical, Northern Ireland would have been in trouble.

At the other end Kyle Lafferty, magnificent in the campaign to date, had a fantastic chance to win it in the final moments, but snatched at his shot.

To be fair to Lafferty he worked tirelessly for the cause. More perspiration than inspiration this time.

The calmest man in the ground seemed to be goalkeeper Michael McGovern, brought in to replace the injured Roy Carroll.

McGovern was as steady as a rock in his first competitive clash and deservedly kept a clean sheet. He was one of the few to enjoy Saturday night's experience. Everyone should follow his lead.

When you think about it, this is not a time to let nerves get the better of us or for tension to dominate emotions. This is a time to enjoy.

At the weekend Northern Ireland guaranteed themselves at the very least a play-off place to reach the Euro 2016 finals...and with FOUR games to go.

The dream to qualify automatically remains very much alive. What a difference to the previous campaign which was a total nightmare.

Go back further to when fuming Northern Ireland supporters were baying for Nigel Worthington's blood after a string of poor performances.

And who can forget those days when the team couldn't even score, let alone win.

You may not have thought it on Saturday night, but this is a magical period for Northern Ireland and there is even better to come. Northern Ireland will qualify. Enjoy the ride.

Belfast Telegraph


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