Belfast Telegraph

Martin got it wrong and brave Northern Ireland boys would have hammered Danes: McGrath

By Gareth Hanna

Northern Ireland's performance in Switzerland turned one former Republic of Ireland star green with envy.

Manchester United, Aston Villa and Republic legend Paul McGrath was at Windsor Park last night, 24 years after he played at the ground for the Republic of Ireland in an infamous clash.

He was there with Northern Ireland great Norman Whiteside at an evening hosted by the Belfast Telegraph, reliving two superb careers and the pair's World Cup heroics of the 80s and 90s.

Twenty years from now, the current crop of Northern Ireland and Republic talent will not be able to tell similar tales having had their own World Cup dreams end in heartache earlier this week.

But while Northern Ireland went out only to a contentious penalty kick, having held Switzerland to a 0-0 draw in Basel, the Republic were bashed 5-1 by a Christian Eriksen-inspired Denmark in Dublin.

For McGrath, there was no comparison between the two second-leg displays.

"I wish we had had your team that went to Switzerland playing in Dublin," he said.

"They were exceptional, ran their guts out and gave everything for the Northern Ireland cause.

"I shouldn't say ashamed but I was a little bit embarrassed (during the Republic of Ireland defeat). There were about four of our players showed up and the rest hadn't got a clue.

"Your lads did everything. That goal-line clearance sums it up. It's a shame we couldn't have swapped and Northern Ireland couldn't have played Denmark because I think you would have hammered them."

McGrath also held over a thought for Northern Ireland's Corry Evans, who had been sent off after conceding that controversial first-leg spot kick.

"Corry must be devastated but he shouldn't be," said McGrath. "Corry Evans shouldn't be the man who people are going to talk about in the future. He did nothing wrong and you should have been in extra-time. You should still have had a chance but we shouldn't - no chance."

That Republic display, McGrath said, wasn't helped by the decisions of manager Martin O'Neill, even though the ex-defender did give the Ulsterman his backing to remain in the job.

"I do think he got it wrong," said McGrath.

"I think we became Eriksen-obsessed before the two games. We thought he was that good that he could win the game on his own. We went to Copenhagen and put Harry Arter in front of him and kept him really quiet. Then Martin thought that he wasn't going to harm us too much (in Dublin).

"When we scored the first goal it was brilliant, but then they fell apart. It was sad to see because we came so close. But then again I had to admire Eriksen. The three goals he got were phenomenal. Our team tried our best but we were beaten by a far better team."

McGrath's former Manchester United team-mate Whiteside echoed his old pal's praise of the Northern Ireland squad.

"To go out in such a way..." he sighed.

"As Michael (O'Neill) said after the first leg, you have to put that aside as a professional. We went over to Switzerland and played brilliantly, had a few chances and you couldn't fault the players. It was just that stupid refereeing decision here."

The pair also relived their moves to Manchester United. Whiteside explained how Liverpool had been close to signing him as a teenager, who then played for the East Belfast Liverpool Supporters' Club, before United intervened.

"My mum rang up Manchester United and the chief scout said 'don't do anything' and that he'd be over on the next flight. When he left, we had a new dishwasher and I went to Manchester United," Whiteside laughed.

"I went over every Friday after school and flew home on the Sunday. I did 30 odd trips that year but it was great. Then I went over full-time at 16."

McGrath, meanwhile, had to wait until he was 22 to make a move into full-time football.

A meeting with then Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson, which almost turned sour over a row about McGrath's ear-ring, sealed the deal.

That was the start of an outstanding career, and 24 years after he endured that ill-tempered clash at Windsor Park, McGrath returned, alongside a Northern Ireland favourite, to a standing ovation.

Meanwhile, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers feels no-one in his native land would begrudge Michael O'Neill a fresh challenge.

The Celtic boss said: "If he came out of Northern Ireland there is no-one would hold anything against him with that because he has devoted his life to there, brought through players and it was so unfortunate for him not to qualify."

• Northern Ireland star Niall McGinn is set to leave South Korean club Gwanju after they were relegated from the K-League.

The 30-year-old winger will return to the UK and is expected to have offers from English and Scottish clubs.

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