Northern Ireland’s phenomenal, brave football team produced another stunning performance at a sodden Windsor Park on Saturday night, keeping qualification hopes alive, although hanging by the slenderest thread.
The GAWA have become accustomed to these celebratory occasions, but they are never taken for granted. Torrential rain had put this one in jeopardy and there was an air of disbelief when it became apparent that the match would go ahead. The supporters were, by their own ground quaking standards, quiet in the early stages, drenched from their journeys into the stadium and convinced that the referee would put to an end to the spectacle being splashed out in puddles in front of them.
Ultimately though Windsor Park shook with familiar noise, as the team achieved their third comeback against higher ranked opposition to complete another incredible triumph in this campaign. Since early evening rumours had been circulating in packed pubs around South Belfast that the pitch was unplayable and the game wouldn’t go ahead. Fans arrived at the ground in hope and faith, but when Vink, the match referee performed an inspection several minutes before kick-off, the ball did not appear to bounce and water lay visibly in several areas of the pitch.
The supporters’ relief was palpable when the teams were greeted with a huge roar on their appearance several moments later. The opening stages were a little surreal with the players attempting to dig the ball out of puddles. Gareth McAuley got himself in an aquatic tangle early on and the ball was stopping dead in the surface water.
All’s well that ends well. It is easy to say as a supporter of the winning team, but given their bravery throughout this campaign and given the manner in which Northern Ireland adapted to these conditions, I strongly believe we deserved this victory and this night as much as wins against England, Spain and Sweden. The team were magnificent. No-one shirked their responsibilities, no-one failed to make a contribution, no-one allowed their fortitude to waver for an instant.
Even having experienced the dizzying joy of comebacks against Sweden and that wonderful night against Spain when OWC fell behind twice against a star-studded team, it was hard to envisage repeating these achievements when Bendtner put the Danes ahead early in the second half. What incredible determination then from this indefatigable Northern Ireland team!
And the goalscorers! Warren Feeney’s tireless efforts made him a contender for man of the match and were only equalled perhaps by midfield dynamo Sammy Clingan. Feeney’s goal was fitting reward for his efforts, connecting with Chris Brunt’s beautifully crafted left wing cross and glancing his header past Sorenson in the Danish goal. Feeney would thump a dipping long range effort against the upright ten minutes later, an agonising moment that seemed to indicate it may not be the Irish team’s night.
But a match is never unwinnable for Northern Ireland whilst David Healy, god amongst men, king of green and white kings, continues to wear the IFA badge. How can his stature, his achievements, his innate genius, be described to the uninitiated? He is the greatest player ever to wear the Northern Ireland jersey. George Best underachieved and he produced his most memorable football in the red of Manchester United. Healy has spearheaded some of the most unlikely victories in the history of international football. In an outfit which even at its best has been famously goal shy, he has struck 33 times, 13 in this qualifying campaign. His achievement is unprecedented. No player has scored more in a European Championship campaign. Healy beats the record of world-class Croat striker Davor Suker, a man who played his club football with Real Madrid, not Fulham or Leeds or Preston.
Healy’s goal was a moment of graceful physical poetry. Controlling the ball with his back to the Danish goal, a deft touch earned him the space for a balletic turn. With the feel a world-class golfer displays with a sand iron, Healy’s right foot described an arcing, elegant parabola. His delicate chip was beyond Sorenson’s despairing glove, in the only square inch of the goal in which it was possible to score. It was a goal that can’t really be described. The result of a man in glorious harmony with his sport and his surroundings.
This match was an ecstatic, explosive celebration of a remarkable campaign and the togetherness of an extraordinary team. Sadly it is unlikely to make any real difference to the outcome of the group. Results against Iceland and Latvia have determined that we will not qualify. Latvia will not achieve the unthinkable in Stockholm, even should Healy and his fellow magicians conjure their greatest trick to date in Gran Canaria.
Nigel Worthington struck the only false note on Saturday evening, implying that the appalling conditions had benefited his charges. That was an unfortunate and belittling remark, which would not have been made by his predecessor. This Northern Ireland team have achieved astonishing things in all weathers, and it was not adverse conditions that won them this game, but tenacity, courage and skill.