Michael O’Neill didn’t so much as tinker as wipe clean the tactics board and start again. On an evening more reminiscent of Belfast than Beaujolais country, a much-changed Northern Ireland reignited their Euro 2016 finals campaign.
It is a match destined to enter folklore in Northern Ireland. Children will be read stories about the extraordinary night hailstones fell in the middle of summer in France and Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn secured an epic win over Ukraine.
Crazily, play was suspended because of this unseasonal shower. Northern Ireland had only just taken a 49th-minute lead and feared their momentum being disrupted. Players from both sides protested to referee Pavel Kralovec. As for O’Neill, he seemed as aghast as anyone. They certainly didn’t let hailstones get in the way of a game of football at Brechin.
But no sooner had the players left the pitch than they were back out again. Northern Ireland had a job to do and they did it, stoutly defending the 1-0 lead given to them by McAuley, superb all evening long. The centre-half rightly claimed the man of the match award.
McGinn, a second-half substitute for the tireless Jamie Ward, wrapped things up in the dying moments with a fine second goal. By this time, the sun had returned and lit up a historic scene. How different it was earlier – talk about four seasons in one day.
Despite many fans running for cover from the heavy rain they didn’t forget about the tribute arranged in the 24th minute for supporter Darren Rodgers, who died in an accident in Nice in the early hours of Monday morning. The Northern Ireland players also all wore black armbands after what has been an emotional few days.
It would be crass to say this re-energised performance was solely for Rodgers, but Northern Ireland seemed transfixed to an almost spiritual level on achieving their objective of three points.
When the final whistle sounded, after six minutes of injury time in which they doubled their lead, some Northern Irish players sank to their knees, as if in prayer. The barely believable news emerged later of another Northern Ireland supporter dying of a heart attack during the game.
There was not a single failure among the 14 players asked to help redeem a disappointing opening performance against Poland. Perhaps significantly, and certainly surprisingly, qualifying campaign talisman Kyle Lafferty did not feature at all. O’Neill’s gamble(s) paid off gloriously.
This was O’Neill’s night too. The fear was the manager had set himself up for a pratfall. The incessant rain that fell from thunderous skies over Lyon simply enhanced the feeling that O’Neill risked exposing himself to criticism as well as the elements.
Few managers make such bold moves as to drop half their outfield players. Raising eyebrows further was the player leading this axed list. Lafferty is understood not to have taken the news well. But O’Neill had a plan – and the plan worked like a dream.
He wanted a more aggressive performance and he got it. And he didn’t mean in terms of kicking Ukraine off the park. Indeed, the team in yellow were the more physical of the two sides and at half-time led 1-0 in terms of bookings. Where they didn’t lead, and didn’t deserve to lead, was on goals.
Danger man Viktor Yovalenko had a match to forget, pulling shots either side of Michael McGovern’s goal. But when the goalkeeper needed to be alert, he was. The rain and hail made ball underfoot conditions tricky, but Northern Ireland seemed to draw strength from the inclement weather.
Indeed, the fear was that the break to let the hailstones subside, short though it was, might harm Northern Ireland, who were then very much in the ascendancy. McAuley’s towering header after beating Yevhen Khacheridi to Oliver Norwood’s wonderfully delivered free-kick was nothing more than they deserved.
Conor Washington took Laffery’s place up front. Ward was wide on the right. At one point he was seen waving his arms, as if asking for more support – from the fans. Talk about asking a lot of supporters who seemed to provide constant backing throughout. It was little Windsor Park for the evening. No, scrub that. It was big Windsor Park. Perhaps as many as 20,000 Northern Ireland fans were here, more than can fit into the Belfast ground. It was more than a home from home.
O’Neill kept faith in his three centre-backs – Craig Cathcart, McAuley and Jonny Evans, although the last named was deployed at left-back, with Aaron Hughes brought in to win cap No 101 on the right.
They restricted Ukraine to shots from distance, few of which troubled McGovern. McGinn showed the opposition how to finish, latching on to the rebound after Andriy Pyatov had saved Stuart Dallas’ shot in time added on. What a night.
“We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland,” chanted the fans. Brazil should be proud to feature in the same sentence.