Northern Ireland v Korea Republic

Words Cunningham Peacock


Something wonderful came to an end in the rain-drenched Swiss city of Basel on 12 November last year.

I can recall Wembley in October 1986 when a Northern Ireland team took the field against the might of England in the aftermath of Pat Jennings’ retirement and without inspirational captain Sammy McIlroy. Gary Lineker’s pace and determination were too much for our defence and so a 3-0 defeat told us what we suspected: we were back to square one and a time of rebuilding. So as we anticipate our first game of 2018 are we really back at square one again? We fans are hopeful that the so-called evidence of history means nothing. We are hopeful momentum built up since August 2014 is still with us. Why are we so optimistic? We are full of hope because Michael is still our manager, despite the attempts of certain tartan-clad neighbours to lure him away. The past four years have caused us fans to feel very positive about our chief coach. We have confidence in his man-management skills, his meticulous preparation for games, his motivational gifts, and his will to win. Last Christmas the pantomime in Belfast’s Grand Opera House was Peter Pan. A quip which raised a laugh from the audience was when May McFettridge was told to go out and do battle with the evil Captain Hook. She didn’t fancy her chances in the fight. “What me?” was her reply. “How can I defeat Hook? I’m not a miracle worker. I’m not Michael O’Neill!” Yes, Michael truly is a miracle worker, but what does he do for an encore? He does it again, of course. Here we are at the first game of a new era in our football history and the mountain has to be climbed again. We have every confidence Michael and the team he inspires will rise to the occasion.

The second leg of the World Cup play-off was into injury time when a header by Jonny Evans beat the keeper but was cleared off the line by Switzerland defender Ricardo Rodriguez (ironically it was Rodriguez who had scored the penalty in Belfast that proved to be the only goal of the two games). A few seconds later the final whistle shrilled. Northern Ireland had bowed out of a major competition in the qualifying stages for the first time since 2013. Throughout those wonderful four years I was constantly reminding my mates that we should savour the moment. It was a truly great time in which to be a Norn Iron fan. Michael O’Neill’s lads rose to the occasion again and again. We qualified for Euro 2016 and then reached the World Cup play-off stages. Not only that, we were still in with a chance right to the very last kick. It was a wonderful achievement, but what now? What does the future hold? Are we doomed to wait for decades before also-rans become world beaters again? The evidence of history seems to suggest that Northern Ireland manage to scale the heights of success only after a considerable period of time in the doldrums. We old timers have been here before, facing the morning after the night before and wondering if a golden era in our history has gone forever. I can recall a sun-drenched Windsor Park in October 1959 when the wonderful team which had reached the World Cup quarter-finals just a year previously were made to look ordinary. They were undone by the pace, skill and confidence of a slick Scotland outfit that included the great John White in midfield and deadly striker Denis Law up front. The visitors won 4-0. It was back to square one with a vengeance.


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