Ahead of Northern Ireland’s game with Ukraine last night, manager Michael O’Neill called for his team to play far more positively than they did during their opening match of Euro 2016 which they lost 1-0 to Poland.
Subsequently O’Neill’s players answered their manager’s demand by producing a wonderful performance to beat Ukraine 2-0 in Lyon and put themselves in with a great chance of reaching the last 16 of the tournament.
During their loss to Poland, the Northern Irish players struggled to either retain possession or create chances. After witnessing that, O’Neill bravely decided to make five changes to his staring XI for the game against Ukraine, which paid the most profitable of dividend’s.
The most surprising of those changes saw Conor Washington replace Kyle Lafferty, whilst Conor McLaughlin, Paddy McNair, Chris Baird & Shane Ferguson made way for Aaron Hughes, Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas, and Jamie Ward respectively.
Those changes proved to be masterstrokes by O’Neill as they brought a freshness and vibrancy to Northern Ireland’s play, with Ward & Washington in particularly menacing in attack.
During qualification for the finals, nine of Northern Ireland’s 16 goals arrived from set-pieces and it was from another quality dead ball that they opened the scoring against Ukraine. Oliver Norwood finely floated a free kick into the Ukrainian box which Gareth McAuley powerfully headed home to score his country’s first goal at a major international finals since Colin Clarke scored against Spain at the 1986 World Cup and become the second oldest player to ever score at a European Championship finals.
Following McAuley’s goal, O’Neill’s side defended valiantly as a team to resist Ukraine’s best efforts to find an equaliser, whilst also continuing to pass the ball with composure and threaten in an attacking sense themselves.
In order to maintain that threat, O’Neill introduced Niall McGinn midway through the second half, which proved to be another inspirational decision, as the Aberdeen midfielder scored his team’s decisive second goal in the sixth minute of injury time. Another of O’Neill’s substitutes Josh Magennis powerfully surged down the right wing before cutting an excellent ball back for Dallas, whose shot was saved by Ukrainian goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov only for McGinn to clinically stroke home the rebound.
Whilst McGinn’s goal was the latest ever scored at a European Championship finals, it confirmed another piece of football history by securing Northern Ireland’s first ever victory in the tournament. The magnitude of that achievement was recognised by an understandably ecstatic O’Neill, who is now to focus upon preparing his players to face world champions Germany on Tuesday.
“It’s hard to put it all into words and absorb it all at this time. Everything good about Northern Ireland was in that stadium today. What we need to do is try to nick a point [against Germany]. We will let the players enjoy this and then the minds will switch to the Germans,” declared a jubilant O’Neill, as the 46-year-old continues to enhance his reputation among Northern Ireland’s green and white army as a miracle worker.