To say fortune favoured the brave in Lyon on Thursday would be doing a disservice to Michael O’Neill and his Northern Ireland players, who conclusively disproved the disparaging ‘route-one’ label applied to them before the game by Ukraine’s Ruslan Rotan.
Making five changes to the line-up that lost 1-0 to Poland, including axing talismanic striker Kyle Lafferty, was a brave decision from the coach, but it was not such decisiveness alone that sealed a memorable 2-0 win.
The men in green, white and blue still had to go out there and take control of the game against a tough Ukraine bristling, in theory at least, with the twin threat of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko.
As it was, the star wingers were surprisingly subdued under the attention of Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes, the latter in particular defying his 36 years to suppress the Sevilla flyer.
Further forward, Northern Ireland’s three-man midfield were regularly joined by wingers Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward to overrun Ukraine’s twin pivots of Taras Stepanenko and Serhiy Sydorchuk, leaving the four men in attack isolated.
O’Neill’s side grew to dominate the first half, before taking the lead through Gareth McAuley’s 49th-minute header, substitute Niall McGinn making the game safe in injury time after a determined defensive display in the second half.
Ukraine coach Mikhail Fomenko had told the media before the game his players would need an “iron psychology” to succeed and they demonstrated belief and determination in the second half, pinning the Northern Ireland players back in their own half, either side of a brief, unscheduled intermission caused by torrential rain and hailstones pummelling the immaculate playing surface.
The return of the teams from the tunnel triggered a soaring rendition of their now-infamous ‘Will Grigg’s On Fire’ chant, belted out lustily by the Northern Ireland fans several time throughout the game.
The re-imagining of Gala’s 1996 dance classic ‘Freed From Desire’ has captured the hearts of UK football supporters and the fever is threatening to spread throughout Europe, with Ukrainians, neutrals and even some journalists unable to resist taping their feet and joining in.
The memorable musical interlude over, Ukraine stayed on top after the restart, making it a nervous final 20 minutes for the Irish.
But unlike earlier in the day, when Wales crumbled in injury time to lose to England, Northern Ireland held out to ensure McAuley’s goal – his country’s first at a major international finals since Colin Clarke struck against Spain at the World Cup in 1986 – helped to earn a first victory of their European Championship debut, McGinn slotting home a rebound from a counter-attack to trigger wild celebrations.
The newcomers ultimately proved they do belong at this level, undoing Ukraine with a hefty dose of the technique and strategy Rotan had unwisely deemed to be absent from their skill-set.
The message for Northern Ireland’s next opponents, world champions Germany, is loud and clear: Underestimate O’Neill’s team at your peril.
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