All should now hail Michael O'Neill's conquering heroes
Euro 2016 Group C: Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine
HAIL, hail may not be a chant many Northern Ireland fans sing, but supporters should certainly hail the heroes who earned this superb victory.
The men in green survived a storm of Ukrainian pressure late on and broke away in the sixth minute of added time for substitute Niall McGinn to add to Gareth McAuley’s great opening goal. Having been taken off the pitch by the referee in the 58th minute, not long after that opening goal, due to a hailstorm, Michael O’Neill’s men showed their ‘stones’ by returning to see out the win.
The celebrations were understandably delirious and former Celt McGinn hailed his goal as “the best moment of my life”. The 28-year-old had outshone and overshadowed one of the best players in the world with his first international goal in Portugal in 2012, but he insisted this night capped that: “I think that’s going to be the best moment of my life, I scored on the European stage, millions watching around the world.
“To score against Ronaldo on his 100th cap was obviously a special moment, and the first goal is always special, but to score in a major tournament against the best in the world – I don’t think anything can top that.”
Skipper Steven Davis had similarly high praise, declaring: “That’s right up there with anything we’ve done since I’ve been in the squad.
“It’s probably the most complete performance in my time in a Northern Ireland shirt and to do it on this stage is incredible. There was a lot said after the Poland game, maybe some of it a little harsh and said in the heat of the moment but one thing we spoke about was not having that feeling coming off the pitch again.”
From the depths of that disappointment about the display against Poland last Sunday, this was much more what we’ve come to expect from Northern Ireland. Credit to manager Michael O’Neill, whose team selection again prompted many talking points - but this time he got so much right.
The boss boldly made five changes to the side that had started against Poland, the most eye-catching being Kyle Lafferty left out and veteran Aaron Hughes recalled at right-back. Jamie Ward, Conor Washington, and Stuart Dallas also came in, while out with Lafferty went Conor McLaughlin, Shane Ferguson, Chris Baird, and Paddy McNair.
As McAuley put it about the manager’s sweeping changes: “Big balls, doesn't he? Michael said he wanted to freshen things up and put more legs in the team.”
That worked - and then some. The formation reverted to the 4-5-1/4-3-3 that served the side so well throughout qualifying and led to a much-improved display - the tone set by both Washington and Davis chasing down the ball into the opposition right-back area in the opening minute.
The first shot on target of the tournament also came as early as the fourth minute, from Dallas, albeit straight at the keeper. Already, it was obvious that there was more bite, more pace, more aggression, more threat.
A poignant moment arrived when tributes were paid to fan Darren Rodgers, who died in Nice on Monday; those came after 24 minutes - marking his age - with a chant of ‘There’s only one Darren Rodgers’, followed by sustained applause. He’d no doubt have been massively proud of his team.
McGinn acknowledged he was energised by the fans: “Even just sitting on the bench, seeing the support, you want to be part of it, want to get on the pitch, get some game-time.
“For me to score on top of that was unbelievable, and to celebrate in front of our fans was incredible. It was perfect that both goals came in front of the fans, it re-paid the faith that the fans have shown us in the tournament so far.”
The men in green finished the first-half strongly, a Ward corner headed just off target by Craig Cathcart. Then, the Norwood-Davis free kick routine that debuted on Sunday night worked a bit better, this time the skipper latching onto the rolled ball before launching a cross-shot that the keeper could only palm away at full stretch.
Ukraine centre-forward Seleznyov headed just wide early in the second half but the opening goal came for the north, in the 49th minute. Olly Norwood delivered a beauty of a free kick beyond the far post and McAuley soared to hammer a header back across and in.
Northern Ireland would happily have ended the match then, but Norwood argued with the referee when he took the teams off the pitch for two minutes after freakishly large hailstones fell. On the resumption, Ukraine tried increasingly desperately to draw level, but Kovalenko sent a couple of shots wide.
As the 90-minute mark neared Michael McGovern was forced into a fine save from Yarmolenko – and the crackling tension in the air wasn’t just due to the weather when six minutes of added time was announced.
Ukraine’s other much-vaunted wideman, Konoplyanka, whistled an effort inches wide, but the vital second goal came at the other end. Josh Magennis shocked his team-mates - and fooled left-back Shevchuk - by going past him rather than trying to waste time by going towards the corner flag.
McGinn jumped over his cutback, letting Dallas shoot, but the Aberdeen player then seized on the keeper’s parry and lashed the ball to the net. McAuley said afterwards: “It's absolutely incredible, first and foremost to win the game. I'm so proud of the players and coaching staff.
“People maybe didn't give us a chance and said we wouldn't get a point, so it's always nice to turn the screw and prove a few people wrong. To me, that's what Northern Ireland is about. It's about being the underdog, scrapping and fighting. The most pleasing thing is that was a Northern Ireland performance out there tonight.”
Right down to the weather - but nothing was going to rain on their parade.
Northern Ireland (4-5-1): McGovern; Hughes, McAuley, Cathcart, J Evans; C Evans (McNair, 93), Norwood, Davis, Ward (McGinn, 69), Dallas; Washington (Magennis, 83).
Ukraine (4-2-3-1): Pyatov; Fedetskiy, Khacheridi, Rakitskiy, Shevchuk; Sydorchuk (Garmash, 76), Stepanenko; Yarmolenko, Kovalenko (Zinchenko, 83), Konoplyanka; Seleznyov (Zozulya, 72).
Referee: P Kravolec (Czech Republic).