Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland legend Norman Whiteside: Pat's the way to do it, Michael

By Norman Whiteside

Talk about deja vu? This was Wembley 1985 all over again at France 2016.

Watching Michael McGovern's magnificent goalkeeping masterclass took me back 31 years to that night in November that year when we qualified for the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, thanks to Pat Jennings' heroics in securing the point we needed in a 0-0 draw with England's finest.

Ok, we lost last night and it was no disgrace going down to the reigning World Champions. But once again a goalkeeper's brilliance has taken us to the next level.

Just like Pat, Michael's feet and fingertips made all the difference between a heavy defeat that would have ended our dream and the margin that now sees us march on to the knockout stages in our first Euro finals. It is simply incredible for a country the size of ours.

Let's be honest, though, but for the top-drawer saves Michael made from world class finishers, we could have shipped a 5-0 defeat or worse and that would have been a cruel exit for a team who have worked so hard to get to where they now are.

So the Germans didn't take their chances? Well that's not our problem. In this game you make your own luck.

Yes, we underachieved in the first game against Poland but we more than made up for that in the 2-0 response against Ukraine last Thursday. It was a bold team selection by Michael O'Neill that paid off and he stuck by the courage of his convictions with the same starting 11 last night.

I must say I feared for us in the opening salvo from the Germans, looking at the world-renowned names ranged against us and the sheer physicality of their side.

We were on the back foot for the entire game. Possession was 70-30 in the Germans' favour but we defended valiantly - for me Jonny Evans has been our player of the tournament over the three games - and when they did find an opening, Michael McGovern came to the rescue, bar the winning goal from Mario Gomez, which he could do nothing about and even that was somewhat scrappy.

However, we didn't create a single chance and when the ball was played forward to Conor Washington, there was too much of a gap in midfield, 40 or 50 yards, for anyone to support him.

The Germans also appeared to drop a gear in the second half, seemingly happy their top of the group objective had been achieved and that they could score if they stepped it up. Michael McGovern would have had something to say about that. It's amazing to think he is out of contract at Hamilton Academicals and looking for a club. I bet his phone is busy this morning.

But take nothing away from this group of Northern Ireland players. Successive generations of players have lived in the shadow of what the squad I was part of achieved in 1982 and 1986. This is their time now and they deserve all the credit their performances entitle them to. In time, we will look back and regard them as legends with Michael O'Neill occupying the same pantheon as Billy Bingham. The achievement has been that outstanding.

And, as for the fans, they have been the 12th man all the way through. Again, I was taken back to my own Northern Ireland era, standing pitch-side at the finish for my ITV summary. They were still there, singing, dancing and celebrating after the final whistle and they didn't even know at that point that we were going through.

Paris has never seen a party like this since France won the World Cup in 1998 and, thanks to Michael McGovern the great adventure is not over yet.

Norman Whiteside is an ITV analyst at Euro 2016

Belfast Telegraph