Belfast Telegraph

Great start for Northern Ireland, but don't let it all slip now

Northern Ireland must be hungry for more

By Steven Beacom

We're up and running. Blasting out of the blocks in Budapest. What a start to the Euro 2016 qualifiers for Northern Ireland.

As the players boarded their plane in the Hungarian capital yesterday, smiles lit up faces... a marked contrast to the frowns normally tripping those in Irish FA tracksuits on homeward bound flights from a foreign land.

Marathon not a sprint the campaign may be, but, having won their first match 2-1 away to Hungary, Northern Ireland are on track for something spectacular, something special, something we've been crying out for for years.

Don't whisper it, shout it loud and proud, qualifying for a major finals again is a genuine possibility.

Prior to the opening game at the weekend, knowing there are no nations to fear in Group F and that a third place finish guarantees at least a play-off, I wrote that this was Northern Ireland's best chance in decades to make it to the glamour stages. What happened in Hungary has strengthened that view.

It wasn't just the result on Sunday which was pleasing, the performance was impressive too.

And note this was not a fortunate win with Michael O'Neill's team scraping home thanks to a couple of lucky late goals having been dominated for the majority of the match.

This was a merited triumph with the manager and his players alike deserving great credit for how they went about trying to secure a positive result.

Tactically and in terms of selection O'Neill, under pressure following the shocking World Cup campaign, was spot on.

It was a big call to play the inexperienced Conor McLaughlin at right back and Chris Brunt out of position at left back, yet both excelled.

Brunt has taken a lot of stick for his performances at international level – I've dished some of it out myself – and fans have, on occasion, questioned his commitment to the cause, but he came up with all the answers in Budapest and warrants praise for his efforts.

In the centre of defence Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley were solid while in midfield captain Steven Davis, offering craft and graft, showed why he is such an important player to Northern Ireland. The canny Chris Baird provided vital protection in the holding role and up front Kyle Lafferty, the creator and scorer of the goals, was a constant menace.

Going behind with 15 minutes to go, the visitors could have gone under having put so much into the game, but rather than feel sorry for themselves, they found strength in the shape of Lafferty to surge again, coming up with a brilliantly worked equaliser, netted by lively substitute Niall McGinn.

From that point, even with limited time on the clock, as O'Neill's team powered forward there was only going to be one outcome.

Keep playing like that and Northern Ireland will have more victories to savour.

The standard has been set and O'Neill's men must not fall below it, not even next month when the part-timers from the Faroe Islands come to town for the second match of the campaign, ahead of testing visits to Greece and Romania to conclude the 2014 fixtures.

The visitors to Windsor Park, when only the Kop and North stands will be in operation due to the ongoing refurbishment at the ground, may be butchers, bakers or candlestick makers, but that doesn't mean they should be taken lightly otherwise Northern Ireland will be left embarrassed, as they have been in the past.

In the Euro 1992 qualifiers the Faroe Islands stunned the Windsor faithful by earning a 1-1 draw.

Move forward to the Euro 2012 qualifiers when Northern Ireland opened up with a win in Slovenia (the last away success until Sunday) and a home draw against Italy, injecting hope that our boys could finish as runners-up in the group behind the Azzurri.

That was until a 1-1 draw in the Faroes and from there everything fell apart, with frustrated and angry fans losing the plot with then manager Nigel Worthington during and after an infamous 4-1 defeat in Estonia, ultimately leading to his departure.

A warning there for O'Neill and the players.

And if they don't heed that one, they only have to look at the last campaign when they somehow contrived to draw with little Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in Belfast and lose to the pair of them away from home.

Those types of games have caused problems for Northern Ireland throughout history, especially in recent years, but it must not be allowed to happen this time.

Anything other than three points would be a huge let down after the success in Budapest.

It may be only one game in, but already Northern Ireland have put themselves in a fantastic position.

This is a golden opportunity. Don't blow it boys, seize it.

Belfast Telegraph


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