Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

‘We love you Michael’ – Green and White Army thank outgoing manager O’Neill

Northern Ireland's manager Michael O'Neill salutes the fans during this evening's game at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's manager Michael O'Neill salutes the fans during this evening's game at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press

By Julian Taylor at Windsor Park

"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.

Sign In

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who has managed his last home game at Windsor Park, pictured with team captain Steven Davis after the game finished 0-0. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who has managed his last home game at Windsor Park, pictured with team captain Steven Davis after the game finished 0-0. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who has managed his last home game at Windsor Park, pictured with team captain Steven Davis after the game finished 0-0. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland's Steven Davis misses his penalty after Netherlands' Joel Veltman uses his arm to control the ball during Saturday night's UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland's Steven Davis misses his penalty after Netherlands' Joel Veltman uses his arm to control the ball during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis takes a penalty which he fails to score as Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk looks on. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Pacemaker Belfast 16-11-19 Northern Ireland v Netherlands - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's Steven Davis misses a penalty during this evening's game at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier Group C. Northern Ireland Vs Netherlands at the National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis takes a penalty which he fails to score at NetherlandsÕ captain Virgil van Dijk looks on. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Pacemaker - Belfast - -16/11/2019. Northern Ireland v Holland Euro 2020 Qualifier Windsor Park Belfast Netherland's Virgil van Dijk contests the ref penalty decision In tonight"s game At Windsor Park Photo Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press
Netherlands goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen saves a shot the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 16, 2019. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wireduring the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 16, 2019. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire.
Pacemaker Belfast 16-11-19 Northern Ireland v Netherlands - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's manager Michael O'Neill during this evening's game at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland's Bailey Peacock-Farrell during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland's Corry Evans with Netherlands' Davy Propper during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
PressEye-Northern Ireland- 16th November 2019-Picture by Brian Little/PressEye Northern Ireland Bailey Peacock-Farrell against Netherlands during Saturday's EURO 2020 Qualifier at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. Picture by Brian Little/PressEye
Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans with Netherlands' Jasper Cillessen during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Northern Ireland's Josh Magennis during Saturday night's UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier against the Netherlands at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Pacemaker - Belfast - -16/11/2019. Northern Ireland v Holland Euro 2020 Qualifier Windsor Park Belfast Northern Ireland Josh Magennis shot just past the post In tonight"s game At Windsor Park Photo Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press
Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland with Netherlands during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Northern Ireland manager Micheal O'Neill with Chris Brunt before Saturday night's UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier against Netherlands at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier Group C. Northern Ireland Vs Netherlands at the National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland fans Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier Group C. Northern Ireland Vs Netherlands at the National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland fans Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Pacemaker - Belfast - -16/11/2019. Northern Ireland v Holland Euro 2020 Qualifier Windsor Park Belfast Dutch fan In tonight"s game At Windsor Park Photo Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press

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.

 v Holland 73 (2).jpg
Northern Ireland's fans in full voice during this evening's game at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press

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?

Belfast Telegraph Digital

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph