Belfast Telegraph

European Qualifiers: What a perfect way to Finnish our journey to France

Finland 1-1 Northern Ireland

By Steven Beacom

The race started in Budapest in September last year and it ended with a lap of honour in Helsinki last night.

In between Northern Ireland have been to Athens, Bucharest and Torshavn and enjoyed five fun nights in Belfast at Windsor Park en route to France and the Euro 2016 finals.

What a sensational campaign this has been, finished off with a 1-1 draw against the Finnish at Helsingin Olympiastadion to seal top spot in Group F.

Craig Cathcart scored his first international goal to give the visitors the lead and while Paulus Arajuuri levelled late on, netting the final goal at the old ground before it is demolished and rebuilt into a state-of-the-art 50,000 all-seater stadium, this was another great evening for Michael O'Neill's men.

There were 14,550 inside the arena, which staged the Olympics in 1952, to see it, 2,200 of which were Northern Ireland fans, who did not stop singing all night.

The Green and White Army aren't just going to bring colour to France, they will bring noise. Endless, endless noise.

"We are top of the league," they sang last night.

"We're going to gay Paree" was another number banged out at will.

And of course they didn't forget to hail their heroes on the pitch, from captain marvel Steven Davis to man mountain defender Gareth McAuley.

The supporters had come from all over Northern Ireland to savour this, with flags from Cookstown, Bangor, Kilkeel, Dungannon, Lisburn and many other towns on show.

For them this was more a party than a game of football.

For O'Neill's team the aim was to earn at least a point to top the table.

Mission accomplished. It has been that sort of campaign.

Take a look at this list of achievements and firsts for the outstanding O'Neill and his fantastic footballers.

• This is the first time Northern Ireland have qualified for the Euro finals.

• This is the first time Northern Ireland have topped their Euro qualifying group.

• This is the first time a pot five team has topped a Euro group.

• This is the first major tournament Northern Ireland have qualified for since the 1986 World Cup.

History makers. The Northern Ireland players and O'Neill deserve immense credit.

To think that in the last World Cup campaign, the team only won one match out of 10, finishing fifth out of six.

This time around they only lost one match out of 10 and ended up top of the pile.

It's been a remarkable turnaround and every player will tell you it is down to the boss who has taken them on a stairway to football heaven.

How they are all looking forward to France next year and like the manager there will be fierce determination not to go there just to make up the numbers.

Davis, McAuley, Kyle Lafferty and the rest will travel planning to make an impact and hoping by then that O'Neill has a new four-year contract from the IFA in his back pocket.

Prior to last night's final test of the campaign with Finland, O'Neill insisted he would select a strong side.

He was true to his word even though qualification had already been secured on Thursday night amid incredible scenes when Northern Ireland beat Greece 3-1 at Windsor.

Lafferty and Chris Baird returned from suspension to take over from Josh Magennis and Corry Evans while Niall McGinn came in for Jamie Ward, who was rested.

Michael McGovern kept his place in goal and the back four from the victory over Greece - Paddy McNair, McAuley, Cathcart and Chris Brunt - remained the same.

Skipper Davis and Oliver Norwood joined Baird in midfield with Stuart Dallas operating in attack alongside McGinn and Lafferty.

It was not surprising, given all the celebrations that followed on Thursday night, that the passing wasn't as accurate or as crisp from Northern Ireland as it had been earlier in the campaign.

Even so they threatened far more in the first half than the home side with McGinn and Brunt providing dangerous deliveries just out of Lafferty's reach and Dallas making willing runs to give Finland's defence much to ponder.

If any team was going to score it was going to be the visitors.

So it proved on 31 minutes with Cathcart the man on target.

Brunt's corner was cleared to McNair who was clever enough to find McGinn in space on the right and his delivery was perfect for Cathcart to head in his first international goal.

What a few days it has been for the former Blackpool favourite.

Brought in to replace the injured Jonny Evans on Thursday night at Windsor, Cathcart played a starring role in the heart of defence in the 3-1 success and last night he netted for his country.

All this and he is having a cracking Premier League season for Watford.

Suddenly Finland came to life just before and just after the break.

First Joel Pohjanpalo was denied by McGovern's sharp save and then the same player missed a sitter inside the box.

For the majority of the second half the game was so disjointed that it was more fun listening to the Green and White Army than watching the lack of action.

Conor McLaughlin, Shane Ferguson and Josh Magennis came on for McNair, McGinn and Lafferty respectively before on 87 minutes Kasper Hamalainen set up Arajuuri to equalise offering a much needed lift to the Finland fans.

No matter to Northern Ireland.

The job was done. The point was gained and O'Neill's men were top dogs.

There will be a few friendlies in the months ahead.

Then next stop France!

Finland: Hradecky, Jalasto, Arajuuri, Ojala, Uronen, Schuller (Hamalainen 79), Sparv, Mattila,Ring (Lod 43), Sadik (Pukki 66),Pohjanpalo.

Subs Not Used: Maenpaa, Moisander, Toivio, Arkivuo, Lam, Raitala, Joronen.

Goals: Arajuuri 87.

Northern ireland: McGovern, McNair (Conor McLaughlin 51), McAuley, Baird, Cathcart, Davis, Brunt, Norwood, Dallas, McGinn (Ferguson 71), Lafferty (Magennis 79).

Subs Not Used: Carroll,McCullough, McKay, Ryan McLaughlin, McCourt, Reeves, Ward, Boyce, Mannus.

Goals: Cathcart 31.

Man of match: Stuart Dallas

Attendance: 14,550

Possession: Finland (56%)

Shots on target: Finland 14, Northern Ireland 8

Referee: Sergey Karasev (Russia).

Belfast Telegraph