Paddy McNair’s post-match statement was possibly uttered in the frantic euphoria surrounding his winner against Belarus. Then again, it may still have been under the same clear-headed ice-cool management that governed his whip into the net for a seemingly improbable 1-0 win.
Nevertheless, his point was very clear amidst the Irish frenzy. The Dutch and the Germans would have been fairly certain that NI, Belarus and Estonia would have taken enough nips out of each other to allow each other to bleed out before the summer finished. This would have left a carefree autumn to qualify for the next Euros for the 1974 World Cup finalists.
They still both are odds on favourites to qualify from Group C, but the Dutch especially now have something very real in front of them. By and large altercations between the Orange and the Green in Ireland are tiresome affairs. The forthcoming encounters should be anything but. McNair’s winner ensures that whatever happens both matches will probably have Kings Billy and James getting satellite dishes attached to their gravestones. The Belfast match in November will have huge weight on it now.
That is ahead but let us deal with a fairly unlikely state of Northern Irish footballing affairs. Few of us really imagined Northern Ireland could get to the summer with the 12 points they surely needed to maintain the Euro monitor beeping. Hope was thrown into the ring amidst historical reality to push the past and the present up against each other. Aside from any awkward juxtaposing, it insulates us from over-excitement to put it at its most bald. Saves us from disappointment basically.
The drug of hope is the crack cocaine of football as well as life itself. Any success needs a degree of luck and football is right at the head of the queue in wanting to be introduced to the ‘lady’ who owns it. The question of luck in Northern Ireland’s recent games throws up that familiar question – do you make your own?
No doubt you can in certain areas but, it does seem Michael O’Neill and his boys have gone around that generally deserted area known as ‘the extra mile’ quite a few times to push any luck their own way. Let’s remind ourselves that this is the last three games we are talking about and not O’Neill’s general Northern Ireland reign. Patterns emerging though.
All the things though that need done are done well and then some to bend luck your way. This doesn’t necessarily extend to some of the football played by the NI team which was average enough for a lot of the time. In that heat though, points were the issue and not the standard of football. But then those things required kicked in.
In many a corporation, you see great posters and pictures inspiring big statements encouraging motivation etc… For me, they are all show and by and large hollow in many cases. Nothing ever beats proper honest to goodness personal leadership. Best seen in the military for my money but sport isn’t far behind. The thing with NI is they achieve in that understated way of doing rather than talking about it. This comes from the manager and the culture and character of the players who clearly are ‘good eggs’. O’Neill puts huge effort into personally engendering it via the likes of example from trusted senior players like McAuley, Hughes, Davis and Evans. They are as classy and professional as they come. They provide huge influence. Aaron Hughes had a particularly good moment to say his goodbyes and OTT will cover him soon.
Michael O’Neill will hit his fiftieth birthday next month and no doubt will have a reflection or two. He should ponder on how he has players digging out of their personal wells at the end of a brute season in burning, drying heat to produce the results just passed. How he ensured they would not accept defeat or a draw, and how various individuals decided they would look the shark in the eye and do something special.
Forty-two years ago to the very day Northern Ireland lost in Iceland 1-0. Iceland then were nowhere near the force they are today. The team came home with the Belfast Telegraph dropping the team in a crevasse. Northern Ireland teams frequently have these type of results and it might not have been that far away last week though losing would not have brought opprobrium on the same scale.
But these O’Neill teams are more often than not eradicating that repeating rash that can flare up. Winning an awkward away match or two against the odds is one thing, but loosening a historical and mental handcuff is another. Two years ago in Baku Stuart Dallas did something similar. No wonder the manager waxed long and lyrical about his players and what they do for him.
As these results go up on the standard like regimental battle honours the culture hardens, yet still flows into the troops, be they players or fans. As I have mentioned before many of these players, like those before them will find their Northern Irish career dwarfing their club ones in memory. The brothers-in-arms mentality which pervades becomes inextinguishable.
Sometimes it all just has nothing to do with football. That’s what recent Northern Ireland results suggest. The collective effort of everyone connected with the Northern Ireland football team pull in such a cohesive fashion it lifts the team up and over. Those removed won’t see it until the Hollands or Germanys are slain. But those closer know what was needed with those supposedly lesser teams.
On the pitch, the manager will have learned a huge amount from his team in the last four games. Firstly, that his new team have been blooded well and are ready now for future battle. In being pushed further than they have gone before, they will have learned a lot about themselves. Conor Washington who many thought would slip from view has shaken up the forward situation big time along with Magennis. McNair has used the four games to become the midfield force he threatened to be. Never in my time watching Northern Ireland has a manager had as strong or competitive a squad. Just imagine a major tournament was in a month or so. Try and pick your 22 and you’ll be surprised at whom you find leaving out.
Northern Ireland may get soundly beaten in the looming Dutch and German games and we will move on. But there is now the thought that they might not – and that thought will be throbbing harder within Ronald Koeman and his men. They can’t really afford to slip up elsewhere either. The sound of a gauntlet landing very heavily was audible in the Netherlands last Tuesday night. The message in the glove if you like would have been set with a slow time fuse for November.
The message though remains- “The Netherlands are going to have to beat us”.