Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland fans in raptures as Lafferty's late show keeps Euro dream alive at a raucous Windsor

By Adrian Rutherford

We're almost there - but what a fright they gave us.

Northern Ireland inched another step closer to Euro 2016 - but only after a dramatic injury time goal salvaged a draw against Hungary.

On a night when a win would have seen us make history by qualifying for a first-ever European Championship, it so nearly went horribly wrong.

Michael O'Neill's side were trailing 1-0 going into the final seconds - and were down to 10 men. But then Kyle Lafferty struck in the nick of time to keep our hopes very much alive.

The Fermanagh man has scored some vital goals to take Northern Ireland to the brink of qualification - but none more crucial than this.

He reacted fastest after a shot had been blocked, firing high into the net to spark scenes of celebration among the Green and White Army.

"It came at a moment when we were at desperation," a visibly relieved O'Neill said afterwards.

Although not the win fans were hoping for, it felt almost as good.

Cheers and singing reverberated around south Belfast as the crowd streamed out into the night.

The draw means Northern Ireland retain their four-point lead over Hungary.

If they beat Greece - the group's bottom side - in Belfast next month they will qualify for the finals in France.

"We're in a great position," O'Neill added. "If you'd offered us a four-point gap with two games to go we'd have taken it."

Fans arrived at Windsor Park hoping this would be a glorious conclusion to an adventure that began exactly 12 months earlier in Budapest.

A surprise 1-0 win that evening set Northern Ireland on the road to the Euros. Friday night's victory in the Faroe Islands meant one more win would do.

Defeat? Well, that wasn't something the thousands crammed inside Windsor Park on a raucous autumn evening were even contemplating.

The atmosphere had been building through the day as thousands of expectant supporters converged on south Belfast.

As kick-off approached the noise grew.

The game was still scoreless at half-time. Not ideal, but certainly not a disaster.

Despite a nation's expectation weighing heavily on their shoulders, Northern Ireland looked composed and comfortable on the ball. The official attendance was just over 10,000, but at times it sounded more like 30,000. Those opening 45 minutes were a strange mix of excitement and tension. The dream was so near to being realised. Tantalisingly so. But without a goal it was still just beyond reach.

Shouts of encouragement rained down from the terraces.

Every tackle won, chance created or Hungarian mistake drew more cheers. The away fans, about 1,000 of them, were tucked in a corner of the South Stand.

Dressed in their national colours of red and white, they more than contributed to the atmosphere. The wall of noise continued as the second half got under way, going up a decibel or two when Lafferty almost put Northern Ireland in front. A surging run from Steven Davis further stirred the crowd. Forget (or words to that effect) your Lampard or Stevie Gerrard, they roared.

A long-range drive from Zoltan Gera flashed wide, drawing nervous gasps.

As the minutes ticked down, the game became scrappy.

Northern Ireland were showing signs of tiredness. Then, disaster struck.

With 15 minutes remaining a free-kick was fumbled by the goalkeeper, falling for Richard Guzmics, who fired into the net.

Suddenly the home fans went quiet. The noise was coming from the visiting section.

The minutes which had slowly been ticking by were now slipping away rapidly. So were Northern Ireland's hopes.

A red card for Chris Baird nine minutes from the end left them down to 10 men. Surely that was it.

But the signal of five added minutes gave some belief. Then, bedlam.

Three minutes into stoppage time - and with hope almost gone - Lafferty rescued Northern Ireland's hopes.

Ecstasy on the pitch as he was mobbed by joyous team mates, delirium in the stands.

"You're not singing any more," the Green and White Army taunted the visiting fans.

The final whistle brought the kind of celebrations normally associated with a Northern Ireland win. It wasn't quite. And nor is qualification sealed yet. But it is a massive step closer than it could have been.

Roll on October 8 when we're back at Windsor Park to do it all again.

Belfast Telegraph