"We love you Michael, we do," echoed around the taut climax of Windsor Park. We didn’t get a winter wonderland of sorts but the night was sufficiently energised, despite a scoreless outcome.
On what was possibly Michael O’Neill’s last game in charge of Northern Ireland at home, this was Green versus Orange with a difference.
Not the familiar, dismal, verbal tennis the country regularly absorbs but it was, in fact, the visit of footballing royalty: the Netherlands, on their first trip to Belfast since 1977.
The home of the IFA has, admittedly, changed beyond recognition for the better: high-end spectator comfort replacing rain-lashed, splintered wood and open slopes of grim, razor wired terracing, but the fervour of Northern Irish fans endures. A generation on, this Group C clash was definitely one of value.
As fans gathered ahead of what promised to be another lively night in south Belfast, for our visitors, a trip to a certain monument is becoming a must-do ritual these days. A cluster of gaudily-attired Dutch supporters were queuing for photos of George Best’s statue outside Windsor Park.
That afternoon of October 12, 1977 was an encounter notable, of course, for opposing magicians, Best and Johan Cruyff.
We will never see the like of their mercurial orchestration again and, with the greatest of respect, even Green and White Army hero Steven Davis and Frenkie de Jong, the midfield guru for the Oranje, wouldn’t consider themselves in that company. A certain Best song in vogue with up-for-it Northern Ireland fans was mightily aired as the Netherlands got a taste of early aggression.
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Business from Northern Ireland’s perspective had been largely concluded. A place in the Euro 2020 play-offs was achieved before a ball was kicked. Thanks to the scoring efforts by Swedish pair Marcus Berg and Robin Quaison in Romania on Friday we can now look ahead — with or without O’Neill — to a rousing finale to the campaign in March.
Premature it may be, but there will have been a few quiet pre-match toasts to those enterprising Swedes. Oh, and naturally for O’Neill — how the GAWA’s roars pierced the night sky before kick-off, for a man who doesn’t, by his own admission, do emotion.
There was applause from the Ballymena man and a warm hug for Davis.
‘Thank You Michael O’Neill’ surging across the big screen before a montage of the manager’s inspirational quotes and famous goals under his charge was just the ticket to get supporters — roaring ‘Sweet Caroline’ a few octaves louder than usual — in the mood. Indeed, even the travelling band from the Netherlands helped fly an O’Neill-inspired ‘Dare To Dream’ banner.
Quite the jolly Uefa ‘Respect’ vibe going on.
The night, so full of possibility, wasn’t all about O’Neill. Supporters were certainly endorsing captain Davis, winning his 116th cap — a UK record for a midfielder — in song after an uncharacteristic 31st minute penalty miss.
The sheer cruelty of it.
Other than a brief display of frustration at the penalty, O’Neill remained an impassive observer, save for a few urgent tactical gestures. Poor Ronald Koeman, though. The Netherlands chief was, at various points, subjected to the sort of puny insults unfit for a family newspaper.
Sensing a second half drift south in terms of performance and nerves, the Green and White Army once again exhibited what O’Neill regularly endorses as unequivocal vocal reinforcement. The optimism of what surely must be the most consistently noisy 18,000-capacity crowd in Europe is something other nations, without question, envy.
In the cold light of day, it’s certainly premature to believe ‘We’re on our Way’ to Euro 2020 as the bouncing dragoons rumbled across much of the latter stages. Still as Northern Ireland jet off to Germany this morning to conclude their group series, this whole sense of dreaming hasn’t done much harm, especially under O’Neill, has it?