The beguiling story that was their qualification has the potential to further unravel if they lose to Ukraine this evening. Manager Michael O’Neill clearly doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want to risk Northern Ireland’s tournament, so hard earned, being remembered for the way they got the game underway in their opening defeat to Poland.
There is the awful prospect that the most memorable thing Northern Ireland do in the Euro 2016 finals is making history with their solo kick-off. They were the first side to take advantage of the rule change that means the ball does not now have to go forward.
Skipper Steve Davis had the privilege of executing the kick that, while it might not have caused shockwaves around the world, certainly raised an eyebrow or two in Nice.
“We’re hoping that isn’t the highlight of the tournament,” said O’Neill. Although drolly delivered, there is clearly the fear Northern Ireland, whose qualification as group winners was arguably the best achievement of the qualifiers, are in danger of failing to leave their mark on the finals in any significant way.
Iceland are the current darlings of the tournament after provoking Ronaldo into a hissy fit, while Hungary, too, made friends with their 2-0 win over Austria. As for Northern Ireland, these last few days have been difficult ones following the death of supporter Darren Rodgers in Nice, after an accident.
The Irish Football Association received confirmation from Uefa last night that they are being permitted to wear black armbands this evening as a mark of respect, although there won’t also be a minute’s silence.
It’s been a tough, emotional few days for O’Neill and his team. But the manager won’t accept suggestions that they are the poor relations of these finals, that their football has proved the most limited of the 24 teams.
“Do we belong here?” he asked. “We felt that all along. But we must demonstrate that tomorrow night against a strong Ukrainian team.
“We lost the opening game of the competition 1-0,” he added. “There are seven other teams who have lost their opening game, and only eight teams who won their first game. It is not as if we have become adrift at this moment in time.
“The margins between success and failure are so fine. Look at Steven [Davis], he was half an inch away from possibly getting an equaliser for us off a free-kick, which would suddenly have put a whole different slant on everything. Austria against Hungary, Austria get a man sent off and Hungary win the game 2-0. What the tournament has shown us straight away is all games are tight.”
But Northern Ireland clearly don’t want to be left needing to beat world champions Germany next week to extend their stay in the competition, something defeat tonight would mean.
Asked yesterday against which side he believes three points are more easily achievable, Germany or Ukraine, O’Neill was short and to the point: “Which one do you think is most winnable given the Germans are the world champions? Tough question.”
The answer reads more harshly than it sounded when delivered by O’Neill during yesterday’s pre-match conference. But the manager was irked slightly by a question from a Ukrainian journalist.
The reporter repeated Ukraine midfielder Ruslan Rotan’s assessment that of all four teams from the British isles at the tournament, Northern Ireland are the only side who play in the traditional “British style”. The observation was not meant as a compliment.
“It’s interesting that was the statement that was made,” said O’Neill, after a lengthy translation process. But he had come prepared. “I looked at the statistics today at their first game and Ukraine’s possession was not particularly high [v Germany].
“And they also played a lot of long balls in the game, which is very British. One thing we have noticed about the Ukrainian team – and the player in question is a very competitive player, an excellent player, but a very competitive player – is that if you look at the yellow cards that the Ukrainians have had during qualification, you can’t say they are playing a Spanish style of football.”
It was a firm rebuttal, expertly handled. O’Neill knows his side have to be more adventurous than they were against Poland. They are set to be helped in their endeavours by more stirring support from the Green Army, with tonight’s game the easiest of their three matches to obtain tickets for.
O’Neill suggested it was the nearest Northern Ireland will come to a home game abroad, a feeling enhanced by being based just a 45 minute coach-journey from the Stade de Lyon.
“We will be in our hotel until two and-a-half hours before kick-off,” he said. “We love our base, we want to stay there as long as possible. We have to make sure tomorrow night’s game is played like a cup final.”