If, as they say, life is all about opportunity, then Northern Ireland deserve theirs because they have fought the fight of their lives in Group F. The Irish squad left Belfast for Gran Canaria yesterday knowing that even if they beat Spain in Las Palmas on Wednesday, they may still not make it to next summer's finals, but there remains a chance and that is enough to stimulate a group of players whose effort in this campaign has been remarkable.
Seemingly poleaxed on day one when losing 3-0 at home to Iceland, Northern Ireland have also endured the departure of their manager, Lawrie Sanchez, half-way through qualification.
There was then an own goal from the stand-in captain, Chris Baird, in Riga – followed by an altercation with Irish fans in the Latvian capital's branch of McDonald's at around 4am – and a last-minute own goal in Reykjavik from Keith Gillespie, who then traded punches with George McCartney on the plane home.
But all the while there has been David Healy, too. He scored a hat-trick against Spain four days after that humiliation by Iceland at Windsor Park and he has not stopped scoring since.
On Saturday night, with 10 minutes left and apparently nothing on as he controlled the ball, Healy swivelled on the left corner of the area. In one movement, and without looking up, he chipped the ball over a static Thomas Sorensen and into the bottom right-hand corner. It was a goal that had everything: imagination, execution, timing, a little whiff of magic. It won three points and meant that Healy broke Davor Suker's record to stand alone as the European Championships' all-time leading scorer in a qualifying campaign. Thirteen goals, six of them against Spain, Sweden and Denmark.
Now the Irish need to beat Spain – again – and hope Latvia do the same to Sweden in Stockholm.
Almost fanatically modest, Healy would speak only of the importance of the victory for the team. "A lot of people were talking about the record before the match but it didn't matter to me as long as we won," Healy said. "To get the winner is an unbelievable feeling. I am just happy that we have taken it to the last game."
Fans of Fulham, Leeds United and Preston may be scratching their heads but Healy has 33 goals in 61 internationals. In a green jersey he is special, but then that comment applies to so many others, Motherwell's Stephen Craigan for one, Nottingham Forest's Sammy Clingan another.
On Saturday Healy's Fulham colleague, Steven Davis, was also exceptional. A downpour had flooded Windsor Park but the game was ordered on and after a patchy first half, Northern Ireland settled and with Davis in charge, passed the ball with admirable intent. This was no hoof and hope display.
As against Spain here, when they were behind twice, the Irish trailed when Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner stabbed Denmark ahead after 51 minutes. A brief lull came then and a less united team might have sensed the end of the road. After all, they had over-achieved anyway. But not these players. Warren Feeney dipped his head to meet Chris Brunt's cross to equalise. There were 30 minutes left.
Feeney hit the post during it with an outrageous volley, Healy scored his wonder-goal and Dennis Rommedahl cracked the woodwork in injury-time. There were other scrambles in the Northern Ireland area but then this has been an eventful journey, and the beautiful detail is that it is not finished yet.
Northern Ireland (4-4-2): Taylor (Birmingham City); McAuley (Leicester City), Craigan (Motherwell), Hughes (Fulham), Evans (Manchester United); Gillespie (Sheffield United), Clingan (Nottingham Forest), Davis (Fulham), Brunt (West Brom); Healy (Fulham) Feeney (Cardiff). Substitutes used: Baird (Fulham) for Feeney, 84.
Denmark (4-1-4-1) T Sorensen (Aston Villa); Priske (Bruges), Koldrup (Fiorentina), M Laursen (Aston Villa), C Sorensen (Odense); C Poulsen (Seville); Rommedahl (Ajax), Andreasen (Werder Bremen), Jorgensen (Fiorentina), Kahlenberg (Auxerre); Bendtner (Arsenal). Substitutes used: D Sorensen (Cottbus) for Kahlenberg, h-t; Wurtz (Copenhagen) for Priske, 72; S Poulsen (Midtjylland) for Jorgensen, 80.
Referee: P Vink (Netherlands).
Booked: Northern Ireland Gillespie, Hughes, Evans; Denmark Andreasen.
Man of the match: Davis.Reuse content