Do you really want to read a match report? Oh, alright then.
It had been a month long wait for Northern Ireland fans since Kyle Lafferty’s dramatic late equaliser against Hungary. It wasn’t a goal that gained a point for Northern Ireland, it was much more than that.
Even if Northern Ireland had lost 1-0 to Hungary, they still would have went into this double header with their destiny in their hands, and with a better head to head record on away goals. It would have meant they would have needed to win both of their final games. Now they only needed to win one.
Not only that, there was the issue of momentum, Hungary on an upward spiral, Northern Ireland deflated. The 1-1 draw meant that Northern Ireland were one win away from their first ever European Championship.
There are those who feel that it should be their third at least, or even fourth. You see, messing up European Championship Qualifiers is what Northern Ireland do best.
In 1983, like 2015, France was the destination Northern Ireland were dreaming of, but were derailed by a 1-0 defeat in Turkey, and missed out on goal difference, despite beating reigning champions and World Cup finalists West Germany home and away.
Twelve years later, a home defeat to Latvia cost Northern Ireland dearly, when even a draw would have set up a play-off against Holland at Anfield, despite being unbeaten away from home in the campaign.
It was Latvia again, alongside Iceland, in September 2007, which cost Northern Ireland a trip to Austria and/or Switzerland the following summer, despite beating Spain, Denmark and Sweden at Windsor Park, and coming home from both Scandinavian trips with a draw.
Those that believe in football going full circle will have been positive going into this game. In 1979, England celebrated qualification for a tournament at Windsor Park, before Northern Ireland got to celebrate qualification for a tournament six years later, the 1986 World Cup, the last time Northern Ireland were at a major finals.
In 2003, Northern Ireland travelled to Greece, with the home side needing a win to qualify. They got it. So surely it was now Northern Ireland’s turn?
If only football was that simple. The conundrum was further complicated by four key absences going into this game – Chris Baird, Kyle Lafferty and Conor McLaughlin through suspension, and Jonny Evans through injury. Evans West Brom teammate Gareth McAuley was passed fit to play, the crowd singing his name at every set piece, his two goals against Faroe Islands last month raising expectations every time he goes forward.
The absence of Lafferty created a vacancy up front, with Northern Ireland’s strikers hitting a run of form for their clubs. In reality, it was either Josh Magennis or Liam Boyce. It was Magennis who got the nod.
Magennis was straight into the thick of the action, looking set to score when the ball was flicked on to him, only for a Greek defender to get a block in.
He was later denied again by a Greek block when midway through the half when the ball fell to him. Without the block, it would have been a goal.
A free-kick aimed at McAuley didn’t quite work, but the ball fell to Oliver Norwood, and his shot just went wide.
It’s an age old cliche that when you play away from home, you keep possession early on and quiten the crowd. Greece were keeping possesion, but the crowd was still noisy, even more so when Northern Ireland were putting pressure on the Greek goal.
Within minutes, Northern Ireland fans were celebrating a goal, but it was a goal that was scored 1556 miles away in Ujpest, as Faroe Islands took a shock 1-0 lead away to Hungary.
If that score stood, Northern Ireland would be going to France, regardless of the score at Windsor Park.
While Northern Ireland fans were celebrating, Greece had an attack which caused problems for Northern Ireland’s defence. A reminder, that all concentration should be on events in Belfast rather than Ujpest.
Jamie Ward headed wide from a free-kick, while Greece had a corner that caused concern in Northern Ireland’s defence, before the breakthrough came, when Corry Evans played in Stuart Dallas, whose low cross was finished by Steven Davis from close range.
It was similar, albeit from a different side, to a goal he score for Rangers against Celtic in May 2009. I don’t think anybody really cared if it was similar to another goal in his goals archive.
The final action of the half was a reminder that the game was far from won, as Kostas Mitroglou hit the post. As the ball was in the air, it felt like time stood still. The ball came out, and landed right at the feet of a Northern Ireland defender, who cleared it out of play for a throw-in.
The throw-in was in a dangerous position. Before Greece had a chance to keep the pressure on, the half-time whistle blew. When something like that happens, you get the feeling that it might just be your night.
Within minutes of the second-half starting, Northern Ireland got breathing space when Josh Magennis headed from from a corner. As the ball looped up in the air, like when Mitroglou hit the post, it felt like time stood still. Magennis was the first Northern Ireland player to score at the Railway End, not that he cared about that little statistic.
Within ten minutes, it was 3-0, when a Greek header clear fell to Steven Davis on the edge of the box, who headed it back into the box, and it went straight in.
Everything was falling into place for Northern Ireland. The fans in Windsor Park believed it was job done, though i’m sure there were seasoned campaigners who still felt Greece would come back and win 4-3.
With five minutes to go, Greece pulled a goal back. Here we go, a dramatic and heartbreaking 3-3 draw awaits. The final minutes weren’t allowed to be relaxing, it’s not the Northern Ireland Way.
Thankfully, they saw the game out and won 3-1, the long 30 year wait was over.
Elsewhere in the group, Hungary were to be denied by a late equaliser for the second matchday running, as Romania secured a late draw against Finland to give them a one point lead over Hungary going into the last matchday.
Romania went on to beat Faroe Islands 3-0 to qualify, rendering Hungary’s 4-3 defeat away to Greece irrelevent.
Hungary are now waiting and hoping that Ukraine fail to beat Spain at home in order to secure qualification as the best 3rd place team.
It would make this achievement greater, to qualify by winning a group, facing off competition from the best 3rd placed team.
Nobody in Windsor Park cared about the race between Romania and Hungary, they were too busy cheering their heroes as they did a lap of honour.
A new generation of fans will no longer have to hear about Israel in 1981. They have their own qualification moment that they witnessed.
The players left the pitch but the fans remained, singing and chanting as the PA System blasted out party songs by the likes of Queen, Tony Christie and Black Eyed Peas, before the players came out to do a second lap of honour.
They deserved it.
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