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Daniel McDonnell: North show bar can be raised from moral victories to real ones

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Chris Baird celebrates Northern Ireland's victory in Greece. Photo credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Chris Baird celebrates Northern Ireland's victory in Greece. Photo credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

Chris Baird celebrates Northern Ireland's victory in Greece. Photo credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

THERE are moral victories and there are real ones. Last month's magic conclusion in Gelsenkirchen was celebrated with the vigour of a three-point outcome, and understandably so given it was arguably the best Irish result in over a decade.

The sobering counterpoint is that the competition for that title is packed with games where, ultimately, it wound up as honours even.

Jason McAteer's Carlsberg moment against Holland 13 years ago is still the most recent source of a competitive win against a major football nation.

And in the week that Ireland prepare for a Glasgow showdown, you have to look back to the Mark Lawrenson-inspired raid of Hampden Park in 1987 for the last away triumph against a genuine qualification contender.

As it happens, avoiding defeat in Celtic Park on Friday would represent a successful 2014 for Martin O'Neill's side with a view to the bigger picture.

But the way in which the group is panning out would indicate that, at some stage, honourable draws must be replaced by stirring wins if the French dream is to be realised.

It would be anomalous if another major tournament ticket was booked without a single 90-minute victory against an intimidating rival - with all due respect to Armenia and Estonia.

This Irish generation could do with the capacity to deliver in one-off battles and they don't have to look too far for inspiration. Just look at Northern Ireland's track record.

SCALP

Since McAteer's glorious Lansdowne afternoon, our friends north of the border have managed to take the scalp of visiting sides from Spain, England, Sweden, Denmark, Russia and Poland.

Now, under the stewardship of Michael O'Neill, they have kicked out of the blocks in the 2016 race in seriously impressive fashion by getting into the winning groove on their travels.

Doing the business against Hungary in Budapest was commendable, even if the Magyars are no longer a real force. But taking full points in Greece last month against a team which has mastered the art of qualifying was a real statement of intent.

Long-term observers of Portadown's O'Neill will not be surprised that he is working wonders with a side that is punching above their weight. His achievement in bringing Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League group stages in 2011 looks even more admirable in hindsight.

Whatever your view of League of Ireland standards - let's not go down the Luton Town route - it is fair to say that the Hoops' breakthrough ran in tandem with a season where the overall quality was on the slide due to recessionary cost-cutting.

Only now is the graph beginning to turn in the right direction again after a steady slip from the peak in the mid-noughties when there was real strength in depth. In the circumstances, the exploits of Rovers in 2011 were remarkable.

Perhaps their failure to take a point from the group stages clouded reflections on a campaign which defied all odds.

But in bringing a solid group of League of Ireland players to that table - Enda Stevens is the only Irish member of that squad now based across the water - O'Neill demonstrated his tactical nous and his ability to make the collective greater than the sum of the parts.

Some parallels can be drawn with his current job. A perfect start to the new campaign has been achieved without the services of the North's highest-profile player, Jonny Evans.

O'Neill's Premier League contingent for their trip to Romania this week is made up of three West Brom representatives, Southampton's Steven Davis and the youthful pair of Paddy McNair (Man United) and Ryan McLaughlin (Liverpool).

Employees of Notts County, Doncaster, Fleetwood and MK Dons are a part of his plans. And the 45-year-old has more SPL operators in his squad than Gordon Strachan.

They have a good work ethic, but they are also well schooled. At Rovers, O'Neill showcased his aptitude for preparing teams for tough foreign assignments.

In the heat of Belgrade, they crossed the threshold with a well-executed plan, and the Dubliners also performed credibly against elite company at White Hart Lane and in their Greek date with PAOK.

With Northern Ireland, O'Neill has abandoned his original 3-5-2 system to revert to what is effectively a formidable 4-5-1 that is getting the best from the enigmatic Kyle Lafferty as a striking force.

Turning an efficient counter-attacking team into a clinical operation on home turf can be a challenge. O'Neill will hope to avoid such difficulties in his country's run of Windsor Park outings in 2015. Whatever happens in Romania, they will enter the New Year in control of their destiny.

Their fans will exercise caution. Recent Northern Irish football history is littered with tales of self-destruction which ultimately rendered the giant-killing acts meaningless. They are not as adept at escaping banana skins as their southern rivals.

UNDERDOGS

Defeats to Iceland and Latvia cost the underdogs a place in Euro 2008. In their attempts to reach the last World Cup, where they finished miles off the pace, they managed to merge beating Russia in Belfast and drawing in Portugal with defeats to Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

That would be typical behaviour, a damaging habit which the manager they plucked from the League of Ireland is looking to erase from their make-up.

With a fearless approach, they have demonstrated that a well-drilled unit can overcome higher ranked opposition on any given day.

After encouraging signs, Scotland and Ireland enter this huge week riding a wave of optimism. But the real local success story of the race towards the 24-team Euros could prove to be their unfashionable neighbours.

McClean's letter should end poppy furore

WHEN James McClean's name is plastered all over social media, there is a natural fear that he has embroiled himself in more difficulty.

But, on Friday night, it was encouraging to see a positive response to McClean's mature explanation for refusing to wear a poppy.

Through the medium of an open letter to Wigan owner Dave Whelan, the Derryman articulated why the poppy has a very different meaning in his home town.

His argument was well-constructed and respectful, stressing his respect for the people who died in both World Wars - including Whelan's Irish grandfather - but adding that his issue is that the poppy is also used to commemorate soldiers who have died in conflicts since 1945.

A few critics claimed that the lengthy missive had PR fingerprints all over it but, frankly, that doesn't matter. There was a time when the 25-year-old ignored advice so if he is taking it on board now then it's a step in the right direction.

It is a shame that McClean didn't do something similar when he took the personal decision to play for Sunderland with a poppyless shirt. He tried to articulate his point in a couple of interviews but that got lost in his ill-advised Twitter spats.

Friends did advise him to make a statement yet it's understood that his then employers weren't keen on the idea.

At a time where footballers are accused are being out of touch with their background, it's refreshing to have a player who is prepared to take a stand rather than keeping the head down and going with the flow.

"I am very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong," he said. "In life, if you're a man you should stand up for what you believe in."

His statement on Friday should be the end of an annual furore cooked up by people who crave outrage.

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