Belfast Telegraph

Hail all our Northern Ireland heroes after sporting miracle against Russia

By Steven Beacom

Windsor Park was bouncing, jubilant players in green shirts were hugging each other and the manager, with applause ringing in his ears, walked down the touchline with a contented smile on his face.

What a night. What a glorious night.

Hail the heroes. Every single one of them.

Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes, Craig Cathcart, Gareth McAuley, Daniel Lafferty, Niall McGinn, Oliver Norwood, Steve Davis, Jamie Ward, Shane Ferguson and the goalscoring god Martin Paterson.

Throw in the substitutes. Will Grigg and Corry Evans, who came on as well.

Heck let's include those who didn't even make it off the bench. And then there's the coaching staff and the boss.

Nice one Michael.

You got it spot on.

Russian manager Fabio Capello might be on £7.8m per year, but O'Neill, on just over £200,000 with a 30 grand bonus every time he wins, is much better value.

On the eve of this World Cup qualifier Michael O'Neill called for a special night bringing back memories of previous wonderful occasions at Windsor Park. Special? Yes. Spectacular too.

I'm not overplaying this when I say that O'Neill and his players pulled off a sporting miracle last night.

Northern Ireland 1 Russia 0.

Come on, let's say it again... our wee country 1 the mighty vast superpower that is Russia 0.

Against all the odds Northern Ireland did it.

Without key striker Kyle Lafferty, who pulled out late with an achilles tendon injury, and without instrumental defender Jonny Evans, who pulled out later still with a stomach bug, and if truth be told without too much hope from the 10,000 members of the Green and White Army inside the ground at kick-off.

Somehow though O'Neill's merry men found a way.

And they did it his way.

When O'Neill replaced Nigel Worthington as Northern Ireland boss his plan was to play an attractive passing game which would best suit the players at his disposal.

He didn't want to go down the road of humping the ball into the box from every angle of the pitch and hoping that it would break kindly for one of his players.

Nine games into his reign O'Neill had not won any of them.

The pressure was building, IFA chiefs were getting a little twitchy and fans were starting to question where the team was going.

To his credit O'Neill kept the faith.

He had the courage of his convictions and did not change his style and now he has been rewarded with what is a fabulous victory.

The pain of the nine games previously was replaced with joy and a sense of relief last night.

Call the victory over Russia and Capello the perfect 10.

The pressure is off and now you can bet your bottom dollar that the IFA will be offering him a new contract to prolong his stay and try and build on this momentous success.

Remember those days when we were beating England, Spain, Sweden and Denmark in Belfast?

Now add Russia to the list.

Capello's highly rated Russia who many feel could be dark horses at the World Cup finals in Brazil next year.

They came to Windsor confident of the three points that would take them above Portugal to the top of the Group F table.

But they left having been made to look like an ordinary side.

In contrast Northern Ireland were extraordinary.

This was no fluke. The home side deserved this success.

At times they played the visitors off the pitch with classy, thoughtful football.

In fact O'Neill's men were unfortunate not to win by a few more.

Livewire Jamie Ward buzzed all over the pitch all night and fizzed a cracking drive against the post.

His was a supercharged display.

Paterson was just as impressive.

The Huddersfield striker has had a stop start international career but last night he came of age at this level.

Just before the break he rose high to head home a fantastic cross from the dangerous Niall McGinn, who had no right to keep the ball in play let alone provide a stunning delivery.

Paterson saw his chance and took it brilliantly, leaping above his marker and directing his header past the Russian goalkeeper and into the net.

Windsor Park erupted. It hasn't been that loud for ages.

Fans were dancing and singing. It was great to see and hear.

Paterson had another header chalked off in a marginal offside decision.

We could have done with that insurance goal to calm increasing nerves in the stadium as timed ticked by, but in the end we didn't need it with the defence, in which Hughes, McAuley, Cathcart and Lafferty were magnificent, comfortably batting away anything the Russians had to offer.

We must celebrate this. And then build on it.

It's Portugal next at Windsor in September. Bring on Ronaldo!

Belfast Telegraph


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