Belfast Telegraph

Grand finale will have Northern Ireland jumping for joy and heading to France for Euro finals

By Steven Beacom

For just a few moments on Monday evening, Michael O'Neill let his emotions run away with him. When Kyle Lafferty scored the 93rd-minute equaliser at Windsor Park against Hungary to keep Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 dream on track, the manager punched the air with joy and roared out his relief as he led a delirious home bench in celebration.

O'Neill is normally cooler than the Fonz on the touchline, focusing on the game, his formation, how his side can threaten the opposition, how they can prevent danger at the back and the substitutions required to influence the action.

He is so concentrated that on many occasions he hasn't acknowledged requests from the fans at Windsor to give them a wave.

Sure, he has enjoyed other Northern Ireland goals in the qualifying campaign, but this was different. It was on a whole new level.

O'Neill was caught up in the euphoria, the hysteria and what had turned into a happy Monday after all as his ecstasy, elation and exhilaration poured out.

It was one of the sights of a memorable night.

In the 10 minutes before, O'Neill, who had earlier watched in despair as Hungary took the lead after a mistake from goalkeeper Michael McGovern and then in disbelief as Chris Baird was sent off, was thinking as clear as ever demanding that his team did not concede another goal in their enthusiasm to make it 1-1.

He explained: "We were down to 10 men and had to be careful not to lose another goal. Our head-to-head record with Hungary meant that if we lost 1-0, and we ended up on the same points, it would be enough for us to qualify. If we lost 2-0 then we wouldn't.

"So it was difficult because Gareth (McAuley) and Jonny (Evans) were wanting to bomb forward and I had to tell them to be careful."

Those comments gave an indication of one of the chief reasons why Northern Ireland have been so successful so far in Group F, winning five games out of eight, drawing two and losing just once.

O'Neill has left no stone unturned. Even when the home crowd were baying for those wearing green to pile forward, O'Neill, who will be offered an improved contract by the IFA at the end of the qualifiers, was sensible enough to see the bigger picture.

In the heat of battle, it is generally the calmest and most controlled leader who comes out on top and O'Neill was rewarded with Lafferty's last-gasp effort.

It may not have given Northern Ireland the win they needed to make next year's finals in France, but it was to date the highlight of a campaign which has been filled with high drama.

In the opening match exactly a year before Monday's magic, Lafferty also netted late on against Hungary... with that goal earning a 2-1 victory.

There was also the impressive 2-0 win over Greece earning the current side a record as no Northern Ireland team had ever won their first three games in a qualifying campaign.

And what about the 2-1 success over Finland in March? The crowd was so loud that day that the Kop had to be knocked down shortly after! (Structural damage may have been the official reason but in years to come the legend about the noise of the fans will grow).

And then there was Monday night with 10-man Northern Ireland hitting back to stay on course for France.

Next month on October 8, victory over Greece would secure a place in the finals.

Even without the banned Lafferty, Baird and Conor McLaughlin, it can be achieved but given the drama of this campaign, don't be surprised if qualification goes down to the wire in Finland on October 11.

Stand by for the grand finale. When it's over, Northern Ireland will be jumping for joy and heading to France.

Belfast Telegraph