Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Swashbuckling Northern Ireland sweep Ukraine aside to keep the dream alive

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine

By Steven Beacom

National heroes. History-makers. Legends one and all. Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill and his magnificent players did you all proud last night.

To a man they stepped up when they really, really had to and produced one of the finest performances ever in Northern Ireland sport.

It was that good. That great. That glorious.

Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn, two men who started their football careers in the Irish League, scored the goals in the second half against Ukraine to seal an unforgettable triumph - the nation's first in the European Championship finals.

But while the scorers deserve immense credit this wonderful triumph was all about the tenacity and talent of the team and the brilliance of boss O'Neill, who made the biggest selection calls in his managerial career and ended up looking like a genius.

Since 1982, when Gerry Armstrong netted an iconic winner against Spain in Valencia in the World Cup finals, Northern Ireland fans have been waiting to celebrate a major tournament success. They have one now and boy did the Green and White Army play a massive part in it with the best support of Euro 2016 to date.

Entering this Group C match, Northern Ireland knew that defeat could knock them out but with the pressure on they summoned the most dynamic display you could hope for.

Character, commitment and class. This was the whole package. After the disappointing defeat against Poland in Nice on Sunday, the real Northern Ireland stood up to be counted in Stade de Lyon. Take a bow Michael McGovern, Aaron Hughes, Craig Cathcart, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, captain Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood, Stuart Dallas, Conor Washington, Jamie Ward and substitutes Niall McGinn, Josh Magennis and Paddy McNair.

Even being taken off the pitch in the 58th minute, along with the Ukrainian players, due to a hailstorm couldn't stop the men in green. This was their day, their time, their moment that will live with them forever.

And the same goes for O'Neill who can reflect on getting it right on the big stage.

He made FIVE changes from Sunday. Out went Conor McLaughlin, Shane Ferguson, McNair and Baird. The biggest shock of all was dropping Kyle Lafferty to the bench. Scoring seven goals in qualifying cut no ice with the boss.

After setting up in a defensive system to try and stifle the Poles, O'Neill opted for a 4-3-3 formation with McGovern in goal, Hughes at right-back, earning his 101st cap, and Jonny Evans at left-back. McAuley and Cathcart operated as centre-backs.

Davis, Norwood and Corry Evans were in midfield with Washington leading the attack and Dallas and Ward on the flanks.

Big calls all over the pitch from O'Neill especially where Lafferty was concerned... it would either be inspired or viewed as insane.

It proved to be the former.

Unlike against Poland, O'Neill's players, who wore black armband's to honour the memory of young fan Darren Rodgers who died in Nice earlier this week, were fast out of the blocks. Within seconds Davis and Washington set the tone by closing down Ukrainian defenders.

It was a lively, energetic and intense opening from Northern Ireland. Just what was needed.

Crucially the influential Davis was finding space and the ball and making the team tick, Washington was a willing runner down the flanks and Ward was making a nuisance of himself while at the back there was little danger for O'Neill's men with Hughes, McAuley, Cathcart and Evans hugely impressive.

This was a side playing with control, composure and confidence and could have been ahead at the break. Dallas had a long-distance effort saved early on, Cathcart powered a header just off target from Ward's corner and Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyativ produced an excellent stop to deny Davis after Norwood's quickly taken free-kick.

It was encouraging from the much-changed side, roared on in the pouring rain by their fans.

The mood went from encouraging to ecstatic in the 49th minute when Northern Ireland deservedly took the lead through McAuley with a towering header at the back post from Norwood's expert free-kick.

What a moment for McAuley. From Linfield, Crusaders and Coleraine to join the greats like Wilbur Cush, Peter McParland, Gerry Armstrong, Billy Hamilton, Norman Whiteside and Colin Clarke who had previously scored in a major tournament.

If anyone in the stadium thought Ukraine would power back they were mistaken. Northern Ireland wouldn't let them. McGovern was excellent in slippery conditions making fine saves while the defence were awe inspiring with the majestic Davis, all the while moving the team forward.

He was key in the second goal, intelligently holding the ball up before playing it to Magennis, who skipped past the full-back and whipped in a dangerous cross which was met by Dallas. His shot was saved but there was McGinn from close range to net the rebound in injury time.

From starting out at Dungannon Swifts to the delight of scoring in the Euro finals in France.

Game over and what a game and what a victory - Northern Ireland's best under O'Neill.

It's the world champions next in Paris on Tuesday. Germany. Are you ready? Northern Ireland''s national heroes will be.

Belfast Telegraph