Saturday 24 June 2017

No shame in defeat as Michael O'Neill's heroes run themselves into the ground in match to remember

Poland 1-0 Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's defender Paddy McNair vies with Poland's defender Artur Jedrzejczyk during the match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images
Northern Ireland's defender Paddy McNair vies with Poland's defender Artur Jedrzejczyk during the match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Only when the game was lost could Northern Ireland feel how far their spirit has taken them.

Here on the French Riviera, far from Belfast, Michael O'Neill's marvellous side were in the jaws of a challenge far greater than simply qualifying for Euro 2016.

Arkadiusz Milik of Poland scores his team's first goal past Michael McGovern of Northern Ireland during the match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images
Arkadiusz Milik of Poland scores his team's first goal past Michael McGovern of Northern Ireland during the match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images

In the heat of Nice, Conor Washington pulled his shirt up over his mouth and Kyle Lafferty went down on his haunches. Poland had scored a comfortable 1-0 win and Northern Ireland were drained.

The chances that fell their way in the last 15 minutes all eluded the grasp of a side built mostly from non-Premier League talent. Not by yards but by the precious inches that mark out the difference between contenders and also-rans.

Dancing

This European Championship needed a happy day in the sun. It needed fans singing and dancing together and occupying a stadium peacefully. As ever, such sentiments come with a measure of uncertainty, because nobody knows what might happen later on.

Poland's forward Arkadiusz Milik celebrates after scoring a goal during the match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Photo: Boris Horvat/Getty Images
Poland's forward Arkadiusz Milik celebrates after scoring a goal during the match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Photo: Boris Horvat/Getty Images

For the duration of the game itself, though, we can say without fear of contradiction that Northern Ireland entered a world unrecognisable from their triumphant qualifying campaign.

Poland are not Spain or France or Germany, who the Northern Irish will face later in Group C. But the Poles were at a higher level than a team whose right-sided defender, Conor McLaughlin, plays for Fleetwood Town (as did Jamie Vardy).

So it was that despite unstinting effort and togetherness, Northern Ireland recorded no shots on target and only 40pc possession.

Poland, on the other hand, were lead by Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski, arguably the most classical centre-forward of this generation, and propelled by Arkadiusz Milik, who scored the game's only goal, and the promising 19-year-old from Cracovia, Bartosz Kaputska.

Kyle Lafferty of Northern Ireland attempts an overhead kick during the match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Kyle Lafferty of Northern Ireland attempts an overhead kick during the match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Also prominent was Fiorentina's Jakub Blaszczykowski in a Poland side that played quick, busy football and showed no sign of wanting to go along with the Northern Irish fairytale.

In truth the Poles probably saw this game as the easy assignment in the group.

And the judgment was accurate, even if Northern Ireland hustled and hassled them throughout.

In his talisman's role, Lewandowski was buffeted constantly by Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart, the West Brom and Watford centre-backs.

These two walked the line between legitimate toughness and illegality, always having to time their tackles to the second as they sought to restrict Lewandowski's turning circle.

Near misses make bad narratives, for bigger nations, but deserve their space on the page for smaller ones fighting above their weight.

In the 71st minute we saw Washington hare after a ball towards Poland's unguarded penalty box but Wojciech Szczesny leave his goal-line just in time to kill the danger.

Fifteen minutes later, Oliver Norwood slipped a free-kick straight through Poland's defence but Steven Davis was unable to quite stretch far enough to make contact .

Then a Norwood free-kick from the far side fizzed through Szczesny's area but evaded every green shirt.

None was a 'shot on target' but each was a 'chance,' manufactured by a blend of players who have transcended their modest background to reach a first tournament in 30 years.

Three decades ago to the very day, June 12, 1986, Northern Ireland lost 3-0 to Brazil in Guadalajara, Mexico. The goals were scored by Careca (two) and Josimar.

That was the Billy Bingham World Cup squad of Pat Jennings, Sammy McIlroy, David McCreery, Norman Whiteside, Gerry Armstrong and Jimmy Nicholl.

It was Northern Ireland's last game in international tournaments before they walked into the sunshine of the Stade de Nice.

Their finest achievement to date has been reaching the last eight of the 1958 World Cup finals, where they lost 4-0 to France.

Many of the fans here in Nice described a place at Euro 2016 as a kind of reward for years of attending qualifying games in distant lands.

They spoke of it as a kind of upgrade. Not one displayed an urge to take it too seriously or come over all intense.

But nor were they here to make up the numbers. They had seen Wales beat Slovakia the day before and were hopeful that the same wave might carry them past middle-ranking opposition. The difference, of course, is that Wales have Gareth Bale.

Potency

But Northern Ireland certainly have the best media guide. It boasts not only of Rory McIlroy, George Best and Tony McCoy but Van Morrison, The Undertones and Seamus Heaney.

Plainly this Euro 2016 adventure is partly about displaying the social and cultural potency of the six counties: to trace a line back to the boys of 1986 and show the country's football team to be an expression of a grander spirit.

Yet 'soul' can take you only so far, and when Blaszczykowski crossed the ball for Milik on 50 minutes, you could sense the first big blow to Northern Ireland's hopes of progressing beyond the group.

The tactic of soaking up pressure early on and hoping for a lightning strike later in the game was sound in logic but ultimately thwarted by a shortage of star quality.

Lafferty called it "not a Northern Ireland performance." The fact that he was so frustrated told you how far they have come.

Telegraph.co.uk

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