Many weren’t sure if manager and one time financial adviser Michael O’Neill would survive the bottom line and keep his job after the previous series which had not yielded any dividend of note. But crucially he did, and I for one had no problem as I felt he had been unlucky in a few games and that there was something better than the Barings bank that was the previous Worthington administration.
Sharing a group with the likes of Romania, Hungary, Finland, Greece and the Faroes was not a group from hell either. Shafts of light on the horizon were that two would qualify from the group and we had played well on two summer tour defeats to Chile and Uruguay. Let trading commence then.
Our first away game was away to the public bath enthusiasts in Budapest- a trip I would have been on had it not been for an alternative American engagement. Watching it on TV, the sinking feeling as we conceded from a set- piece in the 75th minute was probably akin to how England fans feel when the ref blows for penalties. It was harsh as we had performed reasonably well but we are not known for outrageous comebacks in the last fifteen minutes never mind any minute. Then our Ulster equivalent of Beckham post St.Etienne did his equivalent of Beckham’s Greece Old Trafford 2001.
There were many Ulstermen in the crowd who were not in the least enamoured with Kyle Lafferty’s presence in the team after his nonsense against Portugal a year before. They were not slow to let him know either. A possible win against the future Euro 2016 champions had been thrown to the dogs due to his ridiculous sending – off. So …redemption in fifteen minutes? He wouldn’t be the first man from Long Kesh to seek redemption, but I reckon he was the first long man from Kesh to do so, and I can assure you Mo Mowlam was not pulling the strings in midfield.
Many of you will be familiar with the phrase ‘take the game by the scruff of the neck’. With nine minutes remaining Kyle Lafferty not so much did this as held the head underwater. In the middle of the Hungarian half he took the ball and set off on a strong run down the left and sent a twitching cross into the six yard box to be dispatched by substitute Niall McGinn. Mo is in the Maze.
The Hungarians could hear the tank rumblings circa 1956 and Kyle had his goggles on. In the 88th minute this time McGinn repaid the favour and big Kyle bundled in a winner and the green shirts in the ground couldn’t believe their eyes. 2-1 ….what a victory. It was result that was to fire a team into campaign sustaining life. An away win in a campaign is a big deal, but when it is against a proper rival for a qualifying place and the first in the show, the feel – good factor was spilling all over the Danube.
When things go well things can get set in stone. Chris Brunt and Conor McGlaughlin were the full backs on duty that day and let that day be remembered. Massive victory and its resonance continues to this day. To continue this marvellous starter the next course was the Faroes at home in a semi- reconstructed Windsor as the new home took shape. A first half of positive activity resulted in a quick double from McAuley and Lafferty and a fine penalty save from Roy Carroll. Just what you need from a Saturday night out.
Our next engagement was an adventure by the Acropolis. What points would we get by the Parthenon…..sorry about this alliteration but it gets a bit addictive. Yes…it really does. In our olive and lime outfit Jamie Ward kneed in at a corner in the ninth minute and later on sent Kyle Lafferty away for one of the all time great NI finishes. 2-0 and we were making this look easy. We had never had three consecutive competitive wins. Two points clear and it was an M. O’Neill rather than a P. O’Neill who was alarming the media stations.
We all took a breather to take this in and prepared for the toughest game away to Romania in November. Due to injury and suspension we would be missing Ward, Davis, Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt. This would be a big ask and we nearly did it in yet another new strip. But a last quarter two goal salvo from their right – back Papp knocked the c**p out of us and put us in our place in the spectacular Generali Arena. The wind however was still well in our sails and there was, hope, organisation and goals in the team that finished 2014.
Days were counted down until the last Sunday in March when we were due to face the Finns at Windsor. It was a cold and clear evening as the wind billowed through the fresh blocks of concrete in the still unfinished new stand. Two first half- goals at the Kop end within five minutes of each other marked the end of Finland and indeed the end of the stand at that end of the ground. Cracks in the stand were found at the end of the game and of course this was taken as a badge of pride by the fans that they had brought its demise.
It was an accomplished performance and the team were now taking on and beating teams with confidence and belief. New players now were making their mark. The cross from McGlaughlin for one of the goals was quality and Stuart Dallas made his mark along the left flank. Jonny Evans made his first appearance in the series after months of injury. A last – minute reply from Finland did not take away from the importance of the win. Half – way through the campaign and we were in a very good position. All was good at the end of our 600th international game.
A glorious sunny evening awaited the Romanians in mid – June in the rapidly changing face of Windsor Park. The Kop stand was no more and the old Railway end was now packed after its recent emptiness to accommodate the overflow from the opposite end of the ground. I expected a draw and got one as both sides knew that this suited both. Lafferty had a great chance on the turn in the first half and Evans manfully defended a yellow breakaway on his own. The other point of note was a sick Roy Carroll standing aside in goal for Michael McGovern.
The next match in early September away to the Faroes if victorious would open the pathway to France the following June, and it wouldn’t be a hard landing on Omaha beach either. Big Gareth did his usual headed wonder from the Norwood Charitable Foundation but we started to lose our way. Stuart Dallas got stuck in a one way street in his own penalty area and their equaliser was fair comment. It took a stupid sending- off for the game to swing back our way and a second McAuley header from a corner had us in business. Sub Magennis did more torpedo damage akin to his predecessors in the North Atlantic when he set up Lafferty for the third.
We were now two points clear, leaders of the group and could qualify at home on the Monday against Hungary- the tenth anniversary of the England victory. This was heady stuff and we were into too good to be true territory. And we nearly were. The only thing about this game was that we could still lose and qualify. In the same minute that they had gone ahead against us a year before they did the same thanks to a McGovern mistake at a corner. Not satisfied that we did a good enough job of self – sabotage Chris Baird was harshly sent off after a double foul when the first one had not been penalised. Some marvellous facial expressions of outrage were observed. Nine minutes to save ourselves. The crowd vocally forced the ball forward and from a corner a McGinn shot was repelled and flashed in by Lafferty once again. Another stand nearly came down. We were now a point clear and a draw at home v Greece would qualify us.
Greece had been poor and their manager had already been sacked. Whilst we were without Jonny Evans, Baird, Lafferty and McGlaughlin there was little doubt they would be swept away in the green tide. Captain Davis slid the first one in and Josh Magennis headed the second one in from a corner. His manager got in the way of him running to France there and then. A second header again from Davis and the party was in full swing. 3-1 it finished and the team and qualified for the Euros for the very first time. The night moved into Ulster sports history with a swagger.
The campaign closed the following in Sunday in a cold evening in the now dilapidated Olympic stadium in Helsinki. Craig Cathcart scored his first for us but a 1-1 draw brought a series of glory to a spectacular end. Twenty one points had us on top of the group – qualified in our own right. Who would have thought that as we stumbled out of Luxembourg two years earlier?