Belfast Telegraph

Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty get Northern Ireland's Euro crusade off to a flyer

By Julian Taylor

This was the night we had been waiting in vain for. Four whole years, in fact, for a competitive away victory as Northern Ireland came from a goal down to emerge victorious.

A top buzz in Budapest with a twin act of unlikely sorcery in the imperial Hungarian capital has now imbued Northern Ireland with the type of belief that can carry them through this entire 10-match odyssey in the quest to reach France 2016.

On the ninth anniversary of humbling England at Windsor Park, late goals by Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty shot through the night with a swoop akin to the imposing Eagle standing proudly outside the Ferencvaros Stadium.

In the maiden international at the Groupama Arena, Michael O'Neill saw his team come of age, smuggling sheer joy from the Carpathian basin with players and fans bearing smiles as long and winding as the River Danube.

Now with a spring in their step, O'Neill's men can look forward with fervour to their next clash against the Faroe Islands in Belfast next month.

O'Neill – who had more training time with his squad than usual in London last week – opted for a flexible 4-3-3 formation, and chose to give Connor McLaughlin his first competitive start at right-back. The morose Magyars, meanwhile, had been laced with negativity in their build-up. With friction obvious in their camp, coach Attila Pinter had again controversially resisted all calls to include exiled star Adam Szalai of Hoffenheim after the pair's spat last season.

All in sharp contrast to the freshly-minted Arena; a grand monument to a new era of Magyar football. The hosts' impressive attention to detail included a mini audio tribute to George Best. With the legendary Ferenc Puskas the father figure who drove Hungarian football into popular world view in the 1950s, this was a cosy, clear recognition of a kindred soul.

Pinter had noted Northern Ireland's tendency to exercise caution, but the visitors looked bright in the opening period and Jamie Ward should have done better when unmarked on the edge of the box. His scuffed effort was immediately replicated at the other end by Hungarian captain and sorcerer-in-chief, Balazs Dzsudzsak, when offered far too much room inside the penalty area.

Hungary, slowly, beginning to threaten down the right, surprised a high Northern Ireland back line, when Zoltan Liptak supplied Adam Gyurcso – whose sublime touch was cleared by Chris Brunt.

The Magyars gradually displayed more verve, with Dzsudzsak prompting, and Gergely Rudolf testing Roy Carroll with a long range 23rd minute effort which ultimately lacked power.

Lafferty finally broke free for the first time and Vilmos Vanczak received a yellow card for hauling down the Northern Ireland striker.

There was an obvious sense of Northern Ireland needing to get a midfield grip. Captain Steven Davis was struggling, especially in comparison to counterpart Dzsudzsak. The frustration was encapsulated when Oliver Norwood was booked by German referee Deniz Aytekin for back chat.

And just when thoughts ranged upon Northern Ireland's lack of incision, how did Corry Evans miss such a great chance on the stroke of half-time? Jamie Ward ran down the right, and when his shot was parried by Hungary keeper Peter Gulacsi, the Blackburn player, sliced over the bar.

Pinter, agitated and cajoling from the touchline, removed Nemanja Nikolic for fellow forward Tamas Priskin at the break. While Northern Ireland began to show slightly more patience, if not incision, there must have been relief when the eye-catching Gyurcso was withdrawn.

O'Neill sent on McGinn for the injured Ward, hoping the Aberdeen flyer could stretch the Hungarians, only for keeper Carroll to be called upon to thwart Loverencsics once more.

Hungary smelt blood – and they got it in the 75 minute. Pin-sharp Priskin nipped in to get the slightest of headers to force home Dzsudzsak's whipped corner. The Northern Ireland defence, minus Gareth McAuley who had been replace by Craig Cathcart moments earlier, will be asking questions.

Billy McKay replaced Norwood with the Ulstermen searching for an equaliser – but Northern Ireland were collectively fading. Or so we thought.

Having hardly entered the Hungarian danger zone for a long period, Lafferty took action to address matters. The rangy forward powered positively on the left hand side before his low cross was tapped in with ease by McGinn. It was as warmly welcomed as it was surprising.

And then... and then. A cut and dash. Dreamland. Another McGinn-Lafferty combination.

McGinn got on the blind side of the Magyar defence and his teasing cross was desperately forged over the line by Lafferty. O'Neill looked impassive.

Four years since a single goal in Slovenia. And now, having swooped so dramatically to pick their hosts' pockets, Northern Ireland, for once, set the pace.

Belfast Telegraph


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