This felt historic all right. Thirty years after their last appearance at a major finals, the Northern Irish fans were not going to let the little matter of a defeat to Poland dampen their spirits on their return to the big stage.
Michael O’Neill’s side must now believe they can win against Ukraine on Thursday as they look to extend their stay in France beyond the group stage. They know they can rely on unstinting support from their fans, as loud after the final whistle as they were in those emotional moments before kick-off.
In contrast, Northern Ireland succeeded in one mini-victory by keeping Robert Lewandowski quiet. They executed Scottish assistant coach Austin MacPhee’s instructions to watch the Bayern Munich striker particularly closely at the end of each half, when he tends to score.
But with their focus on Lewandowski, his strike partner Arkadiusz Milik was Poland’s most prominent threat, scoring – of course – near the start of the second half.
Milik had passed up several chances before finding his range after 51 minutes, thrashing past Hamilton Accies goalkeeper Michael McGovern from the edge of the box.
No-one will need to tell Steven Davis, pictured, how crucial was his failure to latch on to Oliver Norwood’s slide-rule free-kick late on. Northern Ireland’s skipper and arguably best player had the opportunity to perhaps rescue what would have been a precious point for his side in the 86th minute.
But he let the ball run too far in front of him and he swung his boot at fresh air as the ball trickled wide for a goal kick.
O’Neill rued this spurned chance but could not fault his players, who fought to overcome their obvious limitations. Occupying the crucial wing-back positions at the start were two League One players, Shane Ferguson and Conor McLaughlin.
They were also relying on Kyle Lafferty re-producing his run of scoring form in the qualifiers but he was clearly lacking match sharpness. Poland, meanwhile, had Lewandowski – and the talented Ajax forward Milik too. That Northern Ireland’s first and last corner, greeted like a goal from their fans, did not come until the 66th minute told its own story. Some fans must have felt as if they’d gone down the rabbit hole when watching Lafferty attempt an overhead kick from neat the edge of the box shortly afterwards.
But the fairy-tale that was their qualification has come up against the brutal reality of a top-quality group at the finals. After Ukraine, it’s only world champions Germany.
It was a typically Northern Ireland performance in the first half. They defended as one and attacked as one – literally.
Poor Lafferty. Hampered by a groin strain that threatened his involvement last night, and blunted by inactivity for his club(s) last season, the former Rangers striker was asked to reprise his usual role as a lone striker against fellow totem Poles in Kamil Gilk and Michel Pazdan. It was a thankless shift, if also one he knows well.
He was put to better use as a near-post defender at corners. On one of these occasions he appeared to handle the ball as he cleared. The referee allowed play to continue as Milik collected the ball and then shot, only to see McGovern, the only SPFL representative in the Northern Ireland starting line-up, tip the ball over.
Milik spurned an earlier chance too, side-stepping McLaughlin before seeming ready to burst the net with a left-footed shot. But his effort, with his weaker foot, flew high and wide.
It was a let-off for O’Neill and the fans, who really did put the NI into Nice over the weekend. Flags bearing a variety of place names provided their place of origin but they all melded into one big green army.
O’Neill stood and watched it all at the start. Dressed in a smart dark blue suit, he savoured the scene for a few moments before Northern Ireland kicked off, with Davis launching their first attack at a major finals since 1986 with a long ball up the left.
Truth be told, there were few other forays forward during the rest of the opening half, with Northern Ireland forced to resist mounting pressure. “You can’t have a go if you don’t have the ball,” said O’Neill later, reasonably.
It felt a bit like England v Russia, with Northern Ireland cast as the pinned-back opposition, just as the Russians were in Marseille. Unlike Russia, Northern Ireland could not conjure up the sting in the tail. Davis, though, should have done.
But 0-0 at half-time meant it was a job halfway completed. Lewandowski had been kept reasonably quiet while Milik looked like he had packed his wrong pair of shooting boots.
O’Neill, clearly concluding his side would struggle to last another 45 minutes without conceding if they sat so deep with what was effectively five defenders, changed his formation to four at the back. Davis did his best to support Lafferty.
But Poland secured the lead they desperately wanted and undoubtedly deserved six minutes after half-time.
Northern Ireland’s revamped defence looked exposed down its left flank. Jakub Blaszcykowski explored the space, cutting back for Milik. His effort, with his favoured right foot this time, flew through Craig Cathcart’s legs and beat McGovern low to the keeper’s left.
If the goal hadn’t come then, the likelihood is it would have come later. But O’Neill was right to point out afterwards that his side were never over-run.
“We never envisaged coming into this tournament and being disgraced,” he said. And they weren’t. They’re not Brazil, they’re Northern Ireland, as their fans enjoy reminding everyone.