Belfast Telegraph

No disgrace in losing to a wonderful team

By Paul Ferguson

Our boys can hold their heads high

As fireworks blasted out behind the stadium on the final whistle and players sauntered over to applaud more than 4,000 passionate members of the Green and White Army it brought an end to the dream of appearing in our first ever European Championship finals.

But there is absolutely no disgrace in falling just short and failing to qualify for Euro 2008.

Last night Northern Ireland were beaten by a slick and wonderful Spain side.

Spain, even with six changes from the side that confirmed qualification against Sweden on Saturday night, were a class above Northern Ireland last night.

I don't think we conjured up a genuine goalscoring effort - that though was down to the fantastic play of Spain, of being able to keep possession, rather than our lack of drive, skill or determination to succeed.

Not even wearing the 25th anniversary white shirts or the huge travelling support decked out in replica tops could inspire Northern Ireland to victory on the holiday island of Gran Canaria.

This result really did put into context how wonderful our victory over the Spanish was at Windsor Park 14 months ago.

Northern Ireland skipper Aaron Hughes conceded after the match that Spain should now be considered favourites to go on and win the tournament.

On last night's evidence it would take a brave man to argue with his assessment.

And it could actually be considered a major achievement that Northern Ireland kept the scoreline down to 1-0.

Spain may have had plenty of possession and a great deal of room to work their magic but Northern Ireland, after a nervous opening, kept their shape and made the Spanish work extremely hard for their win.

The touch and positional sense of Sergio Ramos, Iniesta, Senna and Fabregas was mystifying our players, especially poor Ivan Sproule who was struggling to cope with the rampaging Spanish stars and when the Bristol City winger did get the ball he lost possession immediately.

The difference in strength in depth between the two countries was evident for all to see when Fabregas was replaced by Joaquin. One world class star for another.

But the European dream at least went down to the final 45 minutes of this campaign and thousands of Northern Ireland fans lived in hope.

They packed into a corner of the Estadio de Gran Canaria, which was filled to its 31,250 capacity, and were obviously kept up-to-date with word from Stockholm as, minutes after Latvia's equaliser, the Green and White Army roared their approval, much to the bewilderment of the Spanish fans who were concentrating on this match.

The Spanish supporters were full of life before the match kicked off and at half time waving their small national flags, but then acted like the Prawn Sandwich brigade as they settled back in relative peace and quiet to watch the match. There was only sporadic spells of noise emanating from them.

At the end they were celebrating, though, after Xavi's deflected winner.

This was only the second time in Spanish FA history that the national team had played a competitive game in Las Palmas and, therefore, it was a special moment for the people from Gran Canaria as they had just watched their heroes secure top spot in Group F.

But as always it was the Green and White Army who were the last to leave and, I'm sure, partied on well into the night.

They wanted to show the players their appreciation for a thrilling roller coaster ride of a campaign.

For Northern Ireland football, despite missing out on qualification, still has plenty to be proud of.

We have every right to be optimistic going into the World Cup qualifiers.

Maybe then, we can go one better.

Bring on South Africa 2010!

Belfast Telegraph


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