16th October 2012
Portugal v Northern Ireland (1-1)
Estadio do Drago, Porto
Match ‘oito’ then in this skim across the high waves of green ardour with a Celtic cross as a surfboard. The shore is in sight as we round the Cape Horn of the Worthington years to arrive in the cool clear water of the Ocean of O’Neill. A spot of alliterative and nautical nonsense but it’s been a long voyage.
The final two matches in this series will be fairly obvious but this one has been the most difficult to call of them all. It just about edges it ahead of our penultimate home Euro 16 Qualifying game v Hungary in September 2015. Let me try and justify. I mentioned in the Wales report (Cemetery plot 5) about the twenty – two year time span between matches. Much respected left back as he had been for us, I found the Nigel Worthington years of management particularly hard to bear (2007-2011) .His negative playing style, topped off by playing four centre backs away to the Faroes in 2010 alongside his Glenn Hoddle / Darren Anderton style love in with NI legend Johnny Gorman (I think he was called) had me gnawing my ticket. Some would say he ‘killed’ a few players and he ‘killed’ a few fans.
So I was bushy- tailed in 2012 with a new manager now in charge. My first thoughts about Michael O’ Neill were pretty positive following his first match. A home 0-3 defeat to Norway in February is never easy for anyone to take but first match notwithstanding, it really cut him to the clan. More so than necessary I think is my take. He cared beyond his professional duty and I was to see this again four years later after our defeat to Wales at the Euros. It is fairly well Hans Christian Andersen that his first couple of years were hard grind but this match in Porto flagged up that there were better times ahead of these initial years of ‘incoming’.
So mid October on the Western European coast we weren’t in unfamiliar territory. There was not too much in the preceding months to make us change our belief that here we were, in the home of port production, the cheese to be served up on a Ronaldo cracker. Indeed, as an hors d’oeuvre to our infamous 3-2 defeat in September the following year to the Grand Duchy, we had suffered a home 1-1 draw v Luxembourg not five weeks previously.
As I have mentioned, NI fans are used to the scenario of ‘minnow nightmare, giant slaughter ‘ only to be wrong footed on the latter when we reverse the Titanic before the iceberg. I’m still a bit nautical here I’m afraid. Portugal always engender proper footballing respect due to their ability to generally always appear in the big tournaments and supply the occasional outstanding player. That said, somehow we have a more than decent record against them losing only four times to them in thirteen odd matches. That sort of thing though was little more than a paper crutch as we climbed up the hill to the uniquely perforated Estadio do Drago. A proper football ground of character and history.
The match preliminaries probably deserve a mention. The Portuguese fans provided an excellent gallery of colour during the anthems and reminded me of something similar in Chorzow, Poland three years earlier. This was an altogether less tense occasion though. Cristiano Ronaldo enjoyed a ceremony to mark his one hundredth cap and fair dues to him for that- a marvellous achievement for someone who has plenty on his footballing plate.
That didn’t stop him getting his first shot in on us within the first two minutes. Shorn of Brunt and McAuley we had our hands full trying to deal with the movement of Postiga and Ronaldo. The wet and humid night was the backdrop to figures in red cutting through figures in black as we were dressed that evening. It was like a screaming red tabloid headline dominating the black newsprint.
Half an hour in and a major Iberian incident. Jonny Evans intercepts and steps out of defence. Dismissing a couple of Portuguese midfielders he was all Alan Hansen as he elegantly advanced over half way. The ball at his feet was like a rifle in his hand as he advanced up the Douro valley. Knowing when to release a ball is in many cases the difference between a good footballer and an also ran and Evans excels at this. Lafferty ahead had pulled right and he was the benefactor of Evans’ good sense.
Lafferty was quickly surrounded by traffic but with some good footwork and vision was able to feed Niall McGinn now racing into the increasing space on the left. A quick check back and the ball was now on his right with only the keeper in front of him as we watched from up high behind the goal. The ball was neatly lofted in to the middle of the net taking its place as one of my all time favourite goals as there is nothing quite like seeing your team score a goal towards you. Sheer class and not the sort of goal you see too often from us. That Lafferty/ McGinn double act was to be repeated with more impact and points a couple of years later in Budapest.
Oh yes, here we go or bearing in mind our surroundings, “Oh Yao”.
Another siege in a foreign city was again the narrative. Shots and near misses rained in with little respite and when there was, we supplied our own pressure with Cathcart hitting our own bar and our captain miskicking on to the roof of our net. This was a significant match too for our goalkeeper Roy Carroll. He had last been seen limping off against Spain six years ago and although had recently returned still had to endear himself with the fans again who had loved Maik Taylor.
He had plenty of opportunity. A lot of his saves were of the messy type and I don’t mean that as any slight on him. He was just always in the right place somehow keeping the ball out but more importantly providing huge reassurance for his team and fans. He was hugely vocal and covered his area with leadership and defiance. Welcome back Roy!
Portuguese pride kept penetrating us but the gates of Ulster remained closed. Once again I marvelled at the calm defending of Aaron Hughes. A long ball forward to Ronaldo exposed the defence and as he was about to fire, Aaron neatly and without fuss disarms Madeira’s finest before people even knew he was armed. Pop in to Cookstown if you are ever passing Cristiano!
Again, similar to Poland in 2009 we succumbed in the last stages of the game to an equaliser. It too was a bit of a messy affair both offensively and defensively but they all count. 1-1 and Big Roy ensured it stayed that way with some faux jumping over the ball just to show who is king of his area. Another mentally exhausting game as we sat drained at the end.
Following this match, the great Luis Figo of this parish remarked how wonderful a performance Jonny Evans had displayed. Michael O’ Neill, enjoying his first lungful of clean air after the previous nine month smog remarked that irrespective of the result he had been so proud of the team. Weren’t we all? It wasn’t the first time in recent history we had achieved a decent 1-1 draw in a very challenging away game. Sweden in ’06 and Poland in ’09 were similar but I look back now and see the present team still growing from the seeds of that night. The absolute creed of working hard for each other, a tangible goal threat, a superbly organised and resilient defence guided by a manager who can plan and react correctly. The current piece of string for me started there. How long will it be?
Just in case I was in any doubt about this as we raced through the deluge from the ground to the adjoining hotel, who should be sitting in the bar with his good lady wife? Legend of thirty years ago Gerry Armstrong. I think we’re onto something here Gerry don’t you?
” Did I ever tell you about a goal I scored in Valencia a while back?”