What a finish, what a “football, bloody hell” of a night. Just when Northern Ireland looked to have cracked, when all the planning and attention to detail from their so-impressive young manager Michael O’Neill seemed to have been rendered irrelevant by a goalkeeping error and a strange refereeing decision, Kyle Lafferty popped up to stab in a brilliant injury-time equaliser that leaves this rousing, rising Northern Irish team on the brink of next summer’s finals.
The finishing line is yet to be crossed, but they have Greece here next month then Finland away. They will go into the first of those matches without three players. Lafferty is suspended after a booking as is Conor McLaughlin. Chris Baird was dismissed in the 81st minute after a foul on Zsolt Kalmar and is out too.
Referee Cuneyt Cakir produced a yellow card for Baird and then a red. It appeared as though the Turkish official was indicating that Baird had committed two fouls close together and was being booked for each of them. But nobody was too sure.
The confusion merely added to the home despair caused by Michael McGovern dropping a 74th-minute free-kick on to the toe of Hungary’s Richard Guzmics, three yards out.
At that stage Hungary were thinking not just of victory, but of pipping the Irish to France. Then, in five minutes of injury-time, Steven Davis swept in a last corner. It was half-cleared to Niall McGinn, whose shot was low and strong but was saved by Gabor Kiraly. Now it was all about who was next to the bouncing ball and to delirium at Windsor Park, it was Lafferty. It was his seventh goal in qualifiers. What scenes that sparked.
Windsor Park’s reconstruction is half-finished and the old Kop, scene of so many famous goals, including David Healy’s against England 10 years ago to the day, has been demolished.
Nonetheless, there was a great atmosphere at kick-off. It was tense with anticipation as the announcer declared this potentially historic night was “30 years in the making”.
That got the locals going. O’Neill had asked for the crowd to be “intense and intimidating” and they were doing their bit. He also asked his team to play “with clear heads”.
Lafferty went to the touchline and thumped his chest. The line-leading striker had spoken before kick-off of his new-found maturity, and also of how his yellow card status meant that he had played within himself in the Faroes on Friday night.
Here, after nine minutes, he caught Guzmics late and was booked, so he will miss the match against Greece next month.
That was the only blemish, though significant, on a bright, confident opening by the Irish.
O’Neill had made one change from Friday’s side in the Faroe Islands, bringing in Corry Evans, brother of Jonny, on the right in place of McGinn. Evans is a more defensive midfielder.
Not that either Evans had much defending to do initially. Almost everything the men in green were doing was attack-minded. Evidence came in the amount of possession both full-backs – McLaughlin and Chris Brunt – had in the Hungary half.
Brunt is a vital cog in this O’Neill team. His set-pieces have been the source of many goals. Set-pieces are something the Irish work on, in a clever way. The ball is not just lumped into the box.
Oliver Norwood delivered two in the first 25 minutes that had Hungary scrambling. Kiraly, once of Crystal Palace, palmed the second away.
There was some excellent pass-and-move midfield play too. Davis and Stuart Dallas were prominent in the first half. The surprise was that the home domination did not yield a goal by half-time. Having said that, Hungary needed to improve offensively in the second half if they were to alter the shape of the game. McGovern did not make a save in the first half.
Hungary were immediately stationed 10-20 yards further forward after the break and Baird , a pivotal player in front of the back four, was in danger of being over-run.
Zoltan Gera, now 36, spanked one 25-yard shot narrowly wide, but Hungary’s change of emphasis also brought some extra space behind their advanced midfield and Davis was making it his business to run into it. Unfortunately for the home captain, there was no end product and as the game expanded, McGovern was called into serious action for the first time.
Half an hour into the second half, McLoughlin fouled Kalmar, whose free-kick was tipped over by McGovern. Grimly for the keeper, his next action – from a Balazs Dzsudzsak free-kick on the opposite flank – was less competent. The ball came at pace towards McGovern, who caught it, then spilled it. It dropped to Guzmics, who from two yards out prodded it in.
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