Belfast Telegraph

History beckons for O'Neill's Euro heroes

Faroe Islands 1-3 Northern Ireland

By Paul Ferguson

The good ship Northern Ireland is today setting sail from the north Atlantic and is directly on course for the Euro 2016 finals in France.

On a bitterly cold September night in Torshavn, Northern Ireland produced a workmanlike performance to defeat 10-man Faroe Islands 3-1 and to move two points clear at the top of Group F, following Romania's scoreless draw with Hungary in Budapest.

Automatic qualification can be confirmed on Monday night at Windsor Park with victory over Hungary.

In previous years, Northern Ireland have recorded huge September wins over England, Spain and Hungary. This victory eclipses them all in terms of importance for qualification.

It wasn't easy. Northern Ireland really had to dig deep and were helped by Joan Edmundsson's sending off for a second yellow card, but when opportunities arose, they took them.

Gareth McAuley was the Northern Ireland hero scoring two headed goals, while Kyle Lafferty, playing his first competitive game of the season, took his tally to six goals for the campaign to seal the match late on.

Faroes chief Lars Olsen made two changes in defence, due to injury and suspension, from the side that beat Greece at Torsvollur in June and playing a 4-4-1-1 formation, veteran Christian Holst, scorer of the goal against Northern Ireland in 2010 in Toftir, was on the left wing.

Niall McGinn came in for the injured Jamie Ward, currently back at Nottingham Forest with a hamstring injury and unlikely to feature against Hungary on Monday, while Jonny Evans and Kyle Lafferty retained their places in Michael O'Neill's team despite not having seen any action this season.

But the biggest call of the night came in the form of Hamilton goalkeeper Michael McGovern, who regularly plays on a 3G surface at his club, keeping his place ahead of regular Roy Carroll. The fact he was also superb when he deputized for the injured Carroll against Romania in June and has kept three clean sheets for his club this season, also swung it in his favour.

A silly rash challenge by striker Edmundsson on Ollie Norwood had German referee Felix Zwayer reaching straight for his yellow card on 11 mins and any nerves were soon settled by the early goal, they had desperately craved.

A free kick 45 yards out on the right from Ollie Norwood was met by big McAuley who beautifully directed his header into the corner of the net past a helpless Gunnar Nielsen.

After a McGinn half volley went narrowly wide following a deflection on 21 minutes, the Faroes brilliantly raced away on a counter attack and it took Conor McLaughlin deliberately blocking Hallur Hansson, resulting in a caution for the Fleetwood man, to thwart the immediate danger.

Individual errors had cost Northern Ireland dear in their last World Cup qualifying group, but had mostly been eradicated in this campaign.

However, on 36 minutes new Leeds United midfielder Stuart Dallas pressed the self destruct button allowing the Farorese to equalise.

Dallas simply hesitated on the ball, facing his own goal and this allowed Ragnar Nattestad to win the ball and pull it back for Edmundsson to tuck the ball home.

The Faroes were playing with heart, desire and matching Northern Ireland in terms of skill and were not going to accept just a draw - not after June's big win over Greece.

In a quick attack, orchestrated by Solvi Vatnhamar, Northern Ireland had to block shots from Hansson and Edmundsson but until now, neither goalkeeper had a save to make.

The Faroes were hit with hammer blow when goalscorer Edmundsson once again lunged in on Norwood, after 64 minutes, and was shown his second yellow card.

Northern Ireland had 26 minutes to punish the Faroes with their extra man advantage and to signal his attention of attack, O'Neill brought on Josh Magennis for McLaughlin, with Baird moving to right back and the Kilmarnock man joining Lafferty up front.

They needed only six of those minutes, though, as McAuley scored again with a glancing low header after a lovely whipped in cross from his West Brom team-mate.

Four minutes later the match was sealed when Lafferty scored his sixth goal of the campaign.

Magennis fought hard to win the ball on the left, played the ball in to Lafferty who wrestled the ball away from the Faroese, turned and slotted the ball into the net. Game over.

With sights now set on Monday night and Hungary, O'Neill immediately replaced his star striker with Manchester United youngster Paddy McNair and, in the last 10 minutes, brought on Shane Ferguson for Brunt.

Northern Ireland nearly scored a fourth when Magennis hit a rasping shot that was pushed onto the post by Nielsen.

No matter, Northern Ireland had won their first ever game on Faroese soil.

Michael O'Neill's boys are about to create history and qualify for the European finals for the first time - they are heading for France.

Belfast Telegraph