Northern Ireland: Fans keep the faith as Euro dream stays alive

Northern Ireland supporters were in fine voice as qualification for Euro 2016 looms large
Northern Ireland supporters were in fine voice as qualification for Euro 2016 looms large

When you have been been patient for 30 years in the seemingly vain hope of qualifying for another major tournament, what is one month more to wait?

That summed up the mood of Northern Ireland supporters as they filed out of Windsor Park in celebratory mood after Kyle Lafferty's dramatic last-gasp equaliser salvaged a draw against Hungary and kept their dream of qualifying for Euro 2016 very much alive.

Michael O'Neill's side's incremental progress towards next summer's finals now looks to have gathered unstoppable momentum and two points from their remaining two fixtures would be enough to secure their passage to France.

Prior to the game, those fortunate enough to have secured a ticket entered the ground in optimistic and expectant mood as they took their seats in the burgeoning new-look stadium, eager to usher in a new era on the field to match their new surroundings off it.

The 'Green and White Army' sang along to their usual repertoire of familiar favourites blasted out by the stadium tannoys and generated the customary intimidating atmosphere for those visiting the south Belfast ground.

Northern Ireland fans celebrate Kyle Lafferty's late goal
Northern Ireland fans celebrate Kyle Lafferty's potentially crucial late injury-time goal

There was an air of anticipation that success was finally on the horizon after decades spent inventing new fashions of self-deprecating humour during the long barren years, which saw campaigns invariably end in failure virtually before they had started.

There was a larger than usual media presence - similar to that which was in attendance exactly 10 years ago to the day on that that memorable night when David Healy's goal saw off a star-studded England outfit - betraying the fact that much more was at stake than has been the case for a long time on match nights at Windsor Park.

The home crowd was plunged into gloom however when Michael McGovern's howler gifted the visitors the opening goal and a night which promised much seemed to be descending into one of frustration and disappointment, until chief talisman Lafferty transformed the atmosphere with his seventh goal of the campaign, simultaneously ending a run of five consecutive clean sheets for the visitors.

The majority of the 10,000 fans inside the partially reconstructed stadium erupted and the small but vocal band of Hungarians housed in one corner of the ground finally fell silent.

NI fighting spirit

"You've got to hand it to this Northern Ireland side. There was only one team in it in the second half but they stuck to their task and reaped the rewards," former Northern Ireland defender John O'Neill told BBC Radio Ulster listeners at the end of the game.

"It was a real rollercoaster tonight but this group of players have a never-say-die spirit which has served them well throughout this campaign and will hopefully continue to do so until the end. We never do things the easy way and this was another one where you couldn't have written the script."

One seasoned spectator, who has been attending international games for almost 55 years, remained confident throughout, even after a nervy second half which also saw midfielder Chris Baird controversially sent-off.

"I thought we were the better team and deserved at least a point. Kyle Lafferty rescued us again - he has been immense throughout this campaign," observed Bill Hopkins from Comber.

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Kyle Lafferty celebrates scoring the equaliser for Northern Ireland against Hungary

"I've only missed four games at Windsor Park since 1961 and I'll go to Helsinki for the party if it ends up coming down to the final game," he added excitedly.

Holywood man Peter Johnson was only born when Northern Ireland graced the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico and relief was his primary emotion as the men in green edged closer to qualification.

"If we had lost, it could have dented the confidence in the squad, especially with three first-choice players missing for the next game through suspension.

"I've been supporting the team since I was 11 and I'm confident we can achieve that final push over the line against the Greeks. I was expecting the win tonight but we can wait," commented the 30-year-old.

So Michael O'Neill and his charges must wait for another few weeks to finish the job of etching their names into Northern Ireland footballing folklore by sealing a place at the European Championships at the 14th attempt.

Few would bet on next month's visit of the underperforming top seeds in Group F turning into a Greek tragedy, even in the absence of influential suspended trio Baird, Lafferty and Conor McLaughlin.

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