Sunday 26 February 2017

O'Neill's big gamble comes up trumps on famous day for North

Ukraine 0 Northern Ireland 2

Tim Rich

Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 journey mirrors the societal change in the six counties
Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 journey mirrors the societal change in the six counties

The great moments of Northern Irish football are thinly scattered but they seem to be accompanied by extraordinary weather.

It is hard to talk about Gerry Armstrong's winner that beat Spain in their own World Cup without mentioning the heat that gripped Valencia in the June of 1982. And when they recall this victory in Lyon, Michael O'Neill's side will always reference the rain.

Andriy Yarmolenko and Jonny Evans compete for the ball (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Andriy Yarmolenko and Jonny Evans compete for the ball (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The Northern Ireland manager would have been familiar with the steel skies that come as standard in his homeland but by the start of the second half the downpour had become biblical.

Then came the hailstorm that forced both teams off for a few minutes. When the final whistle blew there was a rainbow over the Stade des Lumieres.

"Football is a romantic game and sometimes the underdogs come through," said Gareth McAuley, who scored the first, decisive goal. "People did not give us a chance against Ukraine but this is what Northern Ireland is about, proving people wrong."

The result, marred by the death of a fan from a suspected heart attack while watching the game in the stands, was almost as astonishing as the weather.

Aaron Hughes plays the ball (Photo: JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images)
Aaron Hughes plays the ball (Photo: JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images)

It involved perhaps the biggest call of O'Neill's managerial career. Knowing that defeat would all but ensure their elimination from Euro 2016, he dropped five of his players who had lost to Poland in Nice.

Among them was Kyle Lafferty. Of the seven matches Northern Ireland had won to qualify for the European Championship, the Norwich striker had scored in six.

Craig Cathcart and Yaroslav Rakitskiy compete for the ball (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Craig Cathcart and Yaroslav Rakitskiy compete for the ball (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Earlier in the day, Roy Hodgson had won plaudits for bringing on Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge at half-time against Wales but this was a far deeper gamble. It would have been like Hodgson dropping Wayne Rooney.

"You do question yourself," O'Neill said afterwards. "Having watched the Poland game from different camera angles, I felt we needed more running power in the team. It was hard leaving players out because they had given me everything, but it wasn't quite enough.

"The players were hurting after the Poland game and they were hurting for longer than I expected. But when you get a reaction like that you can't complain. This is the proudest I have felt while in the dug-out."

It might not have the shock value of beating the World Cup hosts but overcoming Ukraine was a daunting proposition. They had run Germany close in their opening game in Lille and now they tested Michael McGovern, with a range of shots.

Niall McGinn celebrates scoring his goal (Photo by Jean Paul Thomas/Icon Sport via Getty Images)
Niall McGinn celebrates scoring his goal (Photo by Jean Paul Thomas/Icon Sport via Getty Images)

For the Hamilton Academicals keeper there could be little worse than having to deal with a wet ball on a soaking surface. But he and the Northern Ireland defence coped admirably, and they knew how to menace from set-pieces.

Applause

The first sign of that came after the Northern Ireland supporters had finished a round of applause for Darren Rodgers, the fan from Ballymena who had been killed in a fall in Nice after the defeat by Poland. However, when Craig Cathcart met a well-delivered corner, his header flashed inches over.

McAuley's was even better. Ukraine were starting to get a grip when he rose to meet Oliver Norwood's deep, long free-kick. The ball slashed into the top corner of the net and the West Brom defender ran with his arms outstretched before throwing himself on to the soft, wet earth.

Ukraine pressed hard and there was a second goal but it came from Northern Ireland.

Josh Magennis drove down the right and cut the ball back for Stuart Dallas, whose shot was parried by Andriy Pyatov. The ball fell beautifully for Niall McGinn, who smashed it gleefully home and reflected afterwards that "this will probably be the best moment of my life". (© Independent News Service)

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