Adrian Rutherford: As Frankfurt prepared for Christmas, Northern Ireland rightly had their sights set on March
In Romerberg, in the heart of Frankfurt’s old town, they were getting ready for Christmas.
Even as the sun briefly bathed down on tourists crossing the iron footbridge over the river on a surprisingly pleasant afternoon, it was hard to escape the festive feeling.
A short walk away, amid the charming half-timbered houses, wooden chalets were busily assembled in preparation for the market that opens in a few days’ time.
Yet while locals here look excitedly to Christmas, Northern Ireland have their eyes set even further forward.
March 26 - when, we now know, we will face Bosnia in a play-off - has been red-ringed in the calendar.
Our journey to Euro 2020, already via stop-offs in Tallinn, Minsk, Rotterdam and, last night, Frankfurt, is not over yet.
Whatever happened here, it wasn’t going to change that, not even when - briefly - a shock was on, and certainly not the eventual defeat to a Serge Gnabry-inspired German side.
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This was merely about trying to end the group qualifying campaign with one last rousing performance.
Early on Michael Smith had the travelling fans dreaming, before Gnabry took the game away with a splendid hat-trick.
The Commerzbank Arena, redesigned for the 2006 World Cup, wasn’t full - the 42,855 crowd was well below its 51,500 capacity, but still made for an impressive sight.
Ahead of kick-off, 10 giant German flags welcomed the teams on to the pitch, while four banners with stars marked out the years of their World Cup wins.
It was a timely reminder of the huge task facing Michael O’Neill’s men, already weakened by illness and injury.
Yet, as has happened so often under O’Neill, the team rose to the occasion, stunning their hosts by taking a seventh minute lead.
When Toni Kroos's header fell to Michael Smith, the defender aimed for goal, firing low and true into the net.
The travelling army, in the lower end of the stand Northern Ireland were attacking, had the perfect view and celebrated wildly.
On the touchline, O’Neill remained calm, walking slowly around his technical area, hands in pockets, oblivious to the ecstasy of those in green to his left.
He must have feared it would trigger a response, and within 12 minutes the lead was gone.
Gnabry, once of Arsenal and West Brom, now with Bayern Munich, turned smartly and fired past Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
A second German goal a minute before the break spoilt what had been an otherwise encouraging first half from Northern Ireland.
From Jonas Hector’s cross, the ball eventually came to Leon Goretzka, whose effort hit the post and spun agonisingly over the line.
At half-time a reworked version of the Queen classic We Will Rock You thundered around the arena.
And Northern Ireland were rocked as the Germans added four more goals in the second period.
Just 90 seconds after the restart, Gnabry made it 3-1, taking a touch on Lukas Klostermann’s pull back before slotting home.
The tricky winger completed his hat-trick just past the hour, keeping his balance to score from a tight angle.
“Gnabry's on fire. Your defence is terrified!” joked the officer German Twitter account, in a nod to the Will Grigg-inspired GAWA favourite.
Goretzka got his second - and Germany’s fifth - in the 72nd minute.
Yet still the away fans sang, easily making themselves heard above the strangely subdued home crowd.
As the PA announcer signalled three minutes of extra time, Julian Brandt rattled in number six.
This marked the end of the group qualifiers, which began back in March with a Windsor win against Estonia on a cold Thursday night.
It was also the final match of the decade.
The first? A 1-0 defeat in a friendly in Albania in March 2010.
Ervin Skela scored the winner with a free-kick on a grim night. The Belfast Telegraph match report reflected on the “Tirana dirge”.
Mentioned on Twitter yesterday, one fan countered: “I was at that game - it was worse than that.”
Whatever the disappointment of last night’s loss, these are very different, very special, times for Northern Ireland.
The Euro 2020 dream is not done yet.
"We're on our way", sang the away end as the minutes ticked down.
Perhaps, but first comes a big date in four months’ time.
Belfast Telegraph Digital