Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's World Cup dream is still alive

Defeat... but fans party in Oslo as NI edge closer to World Cup finals

By David Young

Oslo turned into party central for the Green and White Army last night after Northern Ireland made it into the next World Cup qualifying round - even before a ball was kicked in the Norwegian capital.

Scotland's 2-2 draw with Slovenia last night was enough to ensure the Northern Ireland heroes went into the Norway match knowing they were already through to the next round of play-offs - whatever the result in Oslo.

In the end, they lost 1-0 to their Norwegian hosts but that didn't ruin the party as Northern Ireland were already guaranteed a place as one of the eight best group runners-up in the quest to make the World Cup finals in Russia next year.

Team manager Michael O'Neill said: "It was nice to know how things stood for us coming into the last game.

"Whilst it's unfortunate for Scotland to not get the result they needed, it's a boost for us, and we know now we're going to be in those eight positions."

In the event, last night's match was a bit of an anticlimax as Northern Ireland lost in a disappointing 1-0 defeat, with the decisive strike an own goal scored by hapless West Bromwich Albion defender Chris Brunt.

But the irrepressible Green and White Army simply didn't care.

Last night's result was irrelevant to them.

Ecstatic fans sang their anthem Sweet Caroline as bemused Norwegians looked on.

Others made fun of the high price of drink in the notoriously expensive Norwegian capital, as they sang "It's only £10 a pint".

"Can only assume it's happy hour..." quipped fan Liam Blackburn, while Chloe Shanks tweeted "24 beers in a supermarket £86 no way! I'll never gurn about prices in Belfast again."

Among the high-profile Northern Ireland supporters at the Ullevaal stadium was former Ulster, Ireland and Lions star Stephen Ferris, who posted a picture of himself brandishing a celebratory miniature bottle of Buckfast, which the rugby star called "Lurgan champagne".

DUP politician Sir Jeffrey Donaldson congratulated Michael O'Neill's squad: "Congratulations to Northern Ireland on making it through to the play-offs for the World Cup.

"Fantastic achievement for our wee country!"

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann added: "Many congratulations to Michael O'Neill and his team on making it to the WC qualifiers. Punching above our weight."

The British Embassy in Oslo also sent its support to the Northern Ireland team. "Shame to lose tonight but making the FIFA World Cup play-offs was the priority for Northern Ireland. Have a safe trip home," it said.

One GAWA fan - Ben McCabe - spared a thought for Scotland fans whose World Cup dreams had evaporated earlier in the evening. "Sorry Scotland. But thank you," he tweeted.

If O'Neill's men make it through the next qualifying round, it will be the fourth time Northern Ireland have qualified for the World Cup finals: 1958, 1982, 1986 and - with luck - Russia 2018.

Many of the current Northern Ireland team were not even born when Billy Bingham's squad headed off to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

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