Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Play-offs will be a tonic after an insipid Norse finale when Stephen Ferris' refuelling strategy won the day


By Julian Taylor

Defeat in Oslo. It was dull, certainly, and the consequences in terms of play-off seeding remain shady.

Before a ball had been kicked last night, Northern Ireland fans offered their own splash of playful colour to Norway's pole position in the 'World Happiness' Index. Another milestone in the magnificent Michael O'Neill era has been chalked off.

Regardless of the World Cup play-off outcome - and Russia is still far from certain - this has been a fine campaign, even if losing to a poor Norway side was out of kilter for this squad.

Two years ago to the night, Northern Ireland clinched qualification for Euro 2016 with victory over Finland at Windsor Park. Thanks to Scotland failing to win in Slovenia earlier, a taut sense of occasion was largely absent, despite the good news of the men in green reaching the play-offs. Rather, a sense of relief seemed to sum up the general mood.

Also, as manager O'Neill noted, there is still much to do in terms of reaching Russia next year. We have another month to wait before the country discovers if the Ulstermen can extract another couple of quality performances in order to take their place at the World Cup. Anything other than this insipid Norse finale; the sloppy 1-0 defeat was O'Neill's 51st game in charge.

This was one particular encounter to focus the minds equally of both players and supporters. Considering the eye-watering cost of basic living in Norway, normal away day refuelling strategies had to be modified. Necessity being the mother of invention, Stephen Ferris, Ulster and Ireland rugby legend led the way, bringing over a sample of a certain tonic wine, popular in the Province. This, from a man presumably not short of a kroner or two.

Unsurprisingly the away support were in fine voice right from the start of the final Group C clash.

Over the last few years, principally since O'Neill turned things around, Northern Ireland's fortunes have been fuelled with drama. Last night was a slothful exception and certainly not the type of committed, sharp performance we've become accustomed to.

Looking back, Northern Ireland can identify certain scenes which ensured a stress-free passage amid what was a third group loss in Oslo. Stuart Dallas' late winner in Azerbaijan in June was perhaps the key moment.

What now? Portugal or Italy in the play-offs? Lovely countries, admittedly, for a break - but forget qualification. Nevertheless, whoever Northern Ireland are paired with, O'Neill will be ready for every eventuality. This campaign has underlined as much.

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