GAWA: Matches I’ll Take to my Grave: Ukraine 2016

Northern Ireland

16th June 2016
Northern Ireland v Ukraine (2-0)
Stade de Lumiere, Lyon

Isn’t it such a thing when a word, place or song instantly conjures up an immediate mental thought or image that nothing else will get past. That link is unbreakable and it is hard to fight. It’s like the first hit when you google something. We football supporters are very familiar with this and I could rattle through a ton of them and we would all be on the same instant page.
Well, after the summer of 2016 those of us who say “bout ye” to each other will have an instant connection with Ukraine. I first came across it as a Bailey’s miniature when Paul McCartney sang about it in ‘Back in the USSR’ with the Beatles. Other exposures apart from WW2 history lessons would have been NI playing them in and around 1997/8 in Belfast, and at a stretch watching Andriy Shevchenko scoring twice ( yes, it really happened) for Chelsea against Aston Villa in a 2007 Boxing Day masterpiece of a 4-4 draw.

Now any time I hear the word Ukraine, I am instantly transported back to the Euros in France in June 2016, in what was an absolute near enough ‘ Perfect Day’ as Lou Reed would say. And I always will be. This day was no walk on the wild side, but a day resulting in unbounded joy as a result of a collection of Ulstermen with resolution in their hearts and magic in their boots.
This was our second match in the tournament and we had not exactly covered ourselves in glory in Nice the previous Sunday. We had lost 1-0 to a decent Poland side under a sky so blue ex Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s husband might have rented it. There have been many discussions on this and many reasons put forward as to the cause, ranging from having too much time to prepare, being overawed in our first big tournament in thirty years and indeed Kyle Lafferty’s lack of fitness. These may well have played their part but for me, a key issue was that we were formationally set up not to lose and at a stroke, lost the belief we had created in ourselves since our last defeat in Glasgow in March 2015.

Michael O’ Neill has injected a ‘ fear nobody’ mindset and in squeezing additional defensive midfielder Paddy McNair into the team ahead of speedy outlet Jamie Ward we reverted back to old ways. Poland were and played like the better team but those details are the things that make a difference. Though he has said he would do the same thing again, the manager had the balls to make five changes which undermined his own statement but fair play to you Michael. The other thing that struck me in post – match interviews was the steely determination to right Sunday’s wrong. The only thing missing on the players’ faces as they lined up was cam cream.

Opening defeats for both teams also turned this Slavic/ Celtic clash into a winner takes all. The electrodes were attached and for any losing team at the end they would be switched on. It had been an early start for me and two of my three sons as we took a pre – dawn flight up from Nice into France’s gastronomic capital. Kit checked in, we crossed the Rhone meeting various canary clad fans who had travelled from their oil fields and corn fields far to the east to be here. “Bout ye comrade”!

Further meetings with our own crew completed and having thanked the centre of Lyon for being a wonderful audience, we took the complicated bus and metro journey out to the edge, and I mean the edge of the city to the ground. It was another Thursday afternoon just like 1st July 1982 when we played Austria in Madrid.

We had received a larger amount of tickets for this game and the estimated twenty odd thousand of us decorated the ground like green moss on a wall. The ‘ I will enjoy this day come hell or high water ‘ attitude was palpable. The pre – match chat, of course, was the new team. Lafferty, Baird, McGlaughlin, McNair and Ferguson all dropped from Sunday’s side. It was a huge call but for me it made sense that a footballing dose of Senokot was applied to free the team up. In essence, it would let them play the way they had done throughout the Euro qualifying group. Chris Brunt’s absence had led to us playing a raft of games in 3-5-2 formation and whilst we were adequate at it, I felt the four at the back enabled us to play closer to our limit against better teams. I also was of the opinion our wing backs were slightly unbalanced as one liked to paddle in the shallows and the other preferred being beyond the shark nets. Anyway, welcome back Aaron Hughes who started his second century of caps.

In early we were delighted to find ourselves about ten rows back behind one of the goals. Regimental flag was placed behind the net and we sat back and we took it all in. As Will Grigg and his incendiary adventures cascaded around the Auvergne air, there was a metallic intensity emanating from the players’ warm – up. The ground was in green hands – the only remaining question was who would claim the pitch?

The first half was a fair and even battle with a Cathcart header and a Davis effort warming our hearts. The new team pleased me greatly. There was more energy and pace provided from Corry Evans, Ward and Dallas. Conor Washington was an involved and willing point man. Their fast wingmen, Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko were being masterfully handled by Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans who were never short of collegial help. They were showing how experience and grey matter can negate raw pace. Whilst they had most of the possession, we looked more dangerous.

As half time came and went the meteorological gods put their green and white scarves on. The sky turned grey, rain pelted down and we metaphorically moved from the middle of France to a side street in Belfast. It was like that scene in The Omen just before the priest is speared by the spire. Something was about to happen. As Washington won a free kick out to our right Gareth McAuley lumbered forward to darken the Ukrainian penalty area even further. The ground boomed to the strains of “O Gareth McAuley” from the Six County Army.

As the ball came in the Larne leviathan scattered the yellow birds in his way and launched himself at it. We watched as right in front of us that ball sailed into the glory that was their right-hand corner of the net. Running behind the net and then standing roaring and exultant, the lights behind him dripping off him at every point, the great centre back took his place in permanent footballing deification. Like a giant, he stood over Lyon with a foot in each of its two rivers and stood bellowing Ulster oaths – its king and legend. That goal and aftermath is burned into me. I can almost feel the wind of the ball going past me and the soft shake of the net as the rain droplets fell off it.

He’s a huge man, a huge part of our arsenal, and if you push me would be the cask holder of the team’s Northern Irish DNA. He’s like an aerial rhino and I can’t imagine how you defend against him once he gets going. Our hearts slowed down again and then our beings fell back into line as the support levels, energised and on fire pounded the ground. The crowd put further and meatier belt into the same chant as if they were choreographing from the sides. It’s seriously exhausting but the team never let us forget our relevance.

Corry Evans was like a dervish in midfield. He was winning loose balls before they were loose. A man who had suffered more than most under Nigel Worthington came of age and completely owned no man’s land. The Ukrainians tried to tame him by nearly cutting him in two with one tackle. He was to be my man of the match. His brother at left back was absolute footballing class. Nothing threw him out of step. Controlled concentration and ability dripped out of him. The Evans boys shone through the murk, and murk it was with the referee deigning to take the teams off through the hail and lightening. I scanned the skies for hordes of locusts. It was all happening.

Five minutes later play resumed thankfully and hopefully, we could maintain our grip. As the game went on they became more dangerous and aggressive. But I was confident. Over his tenure, our manager’s use of substitutes has become much more emphatic and effective and it had been a concern in his early years. He brought on two offensive and one defensive in the shape of Magennis, McGinn and McNair  (essentially anyone whose name begins with M) at various points of the second half but crucially he kept the offensive mindset in the team. Magennis with his running and power would keep their defence tied up – McGinn who can nick important goals and McNair – another physical force who can hold the line.

The Ukrainians were finding gaps and a header from a free kick could have gone anywhere but McGovern was getting in some practice ahead of the German game on Tuesday. Another second half of pain watching the clock and we reached ninety minutes ready to die as six minutes of extra time flashed up. Everything counted, keep composure and shape. This applied to the team as well.
We had the ball in their half. McGinn carried and fed Davis who was able to find big Josh with that street corner gait he has ahead of him on the right. Absolutely sure of himself in a way that he wouldn’t have when he got into the team, he dropped a shoulder and a turn of pace took him down to our touchline. A great pullback to Dallas on the edge of the box whose first time shot was now parried to little Niall McGinn now right in front of the net. Shades of Gerry Armstrong 1982. You’re not going to Niall are you? O my God he has. The ball was sucked into the net in one great green inhalation and the Rhone and the Saone rocked to the bone.

Manager O’ Neill who can be animated but generally isn’t, went on a facially uncontrolled tour of his area. As his reactions go it was like an Indian Swami getting up from his cross legged position, punching the air and shouting “Get in ya boys ye” Marvellous stuff! This goal, of course, sealed the game, and we were not to know at the time just how important this goal would turn out to be, as it actually resulted in our qualification to the next round which astounded quite a few. A massive achievement for the size of us. It was an appropriate goal as it had been McGinn who had scored the first in Budapest that had set us on the road in the first qualifying game. It was to be our last in the tournament but we all appreciated his moment.

The final whistle blew and players, staff and fans alike shared a place in time, and like Spain ’82 should carry many for perhaps another thirty years. Aaron Hughes, who had seen it all over his one hundred and one caps sank to the ground in exhaustion and pride, having suffered more than most perhaps since his debut eighteen years earlier.

It was no surprise to hear later of Jonny Evans shedding a tear in the changing room afterwards. Fans love to hear that sort of thing but it highlighted his output and that he was a fan as much as ourselves. But they all are to be honest with you and that is what makes following NI special.

16th June 2016 – the day Lyon and Valencia were twinned in Northern Ireland.
It was a great day for its team and a great day for its fans.
The fans were the power and the team was the glory.