Warren Feeney’s glancing header helped Northern Ireland to a fourth consecutive World Cup victory at Windsor Park last night. We remain top of the group and although, realistically, an unlikely sequence of results would be required, there is still an outside chance that Nigel Worthington and his team could be competing in South Africa come summer 2010.
After Saturday’s high tempo display, this was a rather low key performance from Northern Ireland. In the first half the Slovenes formed marginally the better side. They are a physically imposing outfit and with sloppy Irish passing in midfield, Slovenia found it relatively straightforward to outmuscle Healy and Feeney, who were in receipt of a constant supply of speculative balls along the channels.
The second half saw substantial improvement. Although McCann remained a little wasteful in possession and Davis was out of sorts on the left flank, Northern Ireland’s distribution became sharper. Sammy Clingan in particular deserves credit, because he gradually established an important ascendancy in central areas. Slovenia remained a threat with West Brom’s Robert Koren forcing Taylor to tip a thundering shot against the bar. However it was Clingan who provided the decisive contribution, arcing a teasing cross towards the near post which Feeney’s subtle header duly converted.
Off the field, the supporters’ conduct was a much needed fillip after Saturday’s tension. I abandoned my usual spot in the West Stand and was seated a few yards from boisterous but friendly Slovenia supporters. There was the usual banter, shirt-swapping and songs. All the things which football should be about and which are usually associated with Northern Ireland internationals. A minute’s silence marking the tragic death of 19 supporters in the Ivory Coast was impeccably observed.
Normally none of these things would draw comment and I would take them for granted. However, after the violence and ill feeling which accompanied the Poland encounter, there was something purgative about seeing things return to normal. Personally I’m glad that another match took place so soon, in order that football could reassert its primacy.
The game last night was a tonic for Northern Ireland and it opens up some exciting possibilities over the next six months.
N.b. How good does the table look? Thanks to Porter from OWC for locating it.