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Good times show no sign of slowing down as journey goes on


By Julian Taylor

So here we are. Marching with Michael - and perhaps even ready for Russia.

Like man-of-the-match Jonny Evans powering in on Czech keeper Tomas Vaclik, Northern Ireland are muscling in on something quite magnificent. Another superb chapter as a warm page turns towards a blockbuster conclusion.

"Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before". The insightful words from Franz Kafka.

The famous Czech writer could have been describing the odyssey over the last 18 months or so for Northern Ireland under Michael O'Neill. This squad has long broken past the point of no return to erratic ways. Dare to dream? These nights get better and better.

The Czech Republic were primed for action following a fine reception for their national anthem from the Green and White Army. Viewing this as arguably the most important home World Cup qualifier since Israel were beaten in November 1981, Northern Ireland supporters were well up for it.

Having pushed Germany close in their previous qualifier, the Czechs threatened to build a head of steam only to be undone by the 27th minute header by Evans senior - sparking the kind of joyful explosion a packed Windsor Park is famous for. In the absence of Gareth McAuley, the West Brom defender proved again, when questions are asked, he is another leader of men.

The sense of communal euphoria was cranked up another notch with that sublime free kick by Chris Brunt; a lovely moment for a player who missed Euro 2016 due to injury.

Now that the Czechs have been bounced out, what more can you say about Michael O'Neill, the trusted protector of Northern Ireland's ambitions?

You tend not to associate the word 'exuberance' with O'Neill. Appropriately, there remains work to do, with Germany and Norway to finish the series. A bashful wave from the manager to the support with five minutes remaining was as animated as he got all evening.

O'Neill had, on Sunday, wryly exhaled a vapour trail of weariness which drifts alongside this Northern Ireland rollercoaster. We should be used to the fact the national side receives fairly scant wider attention by now, but the relative lack of sizeable credit for a country surfing a wave with modest resources continues to irk the manager, players and supporters.

As for Karel Jarolim's squad? It was last chance saloon in Belfast for but, ultimately, they flattered to deceive.

Just like in life, when momentum is flowing you don't want the good times to end. And thus, Northern Ireland could be about to uncork something very special.

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