Northern Ireland vs Hungary: Michael O'Neill's team on cusp of history at Windsor Park

Michael O'Neill's team just a win away from Eurto 2016

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The Independent Online

In the 69th minute here in the Faroe Islands’ capital on Friday night, Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill made his first substitution. Off came Conor McLaughlin, on went Josh Magennis. McLaughlin plays for Fleetwood Town, Magennis for Kilmarnock.

While Wales have Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, McLaughlin and Magennis form an essential part of who Northern Ireland are. As they are demonstrating, this team is no less for it.

Magennis struck a post when he went on, with the score already Faroes 1 Northern Ireland 3. It was a fifth Irish win in Group F and it took them to the top.

On Monday night, should Hungary be beaten at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland will qualify for the European Championships finals for the first time. The last time they were at finals was the World Cup in the Billy Bingham days of 1986.

The scale of the modern Irish achievement can be seen in the draw for Euro 2016. Northern Ireland came out of pot five and, having finished fifth in World Cup 2014 qualification, there was no sense of injustice.

That campaign brought one win in 10 games and an infamous 3-2 defeat in Luxembourg. That was two years ago this week. Five of the side that won on Friday in the Faroes played in Luxembourg. Gareth McAuley, who scored twice against the Faroes, also scored in Luxembourg.

Northern Ireland’s trajectory then was downwards. After O’Neill’s appointment in December 2011, it was 10 games before he experienced victory – his only win in 18 games.

Suddenly came uplift. Away in Budapest in the opening group fixture, Northern Ireland were 1-0 down with nine minutes left when Aberdeen’s Niall McGinn equalised. Two minutes from time Kyle Lafferty scored his first international goal in just over two years. Lafferty and his teammates have not glanced back since.

“I don’t really look at the friendly results,” says O’Neill on where Northern Ireland have come from. “The 1-18 statistic didn’t reflect what we were and were becoming. My biggest concern was if I lost the belief of the players, and we’ve worked on trying to create a spirit, discipline.

“But you need results and we got one in Hungary. There was something about our team that night, they weren’t going to be beaten. I saw that, the belief that they could turn a defeat into a victory. Now there’s a whole different dynamic.”

The club atmosphere O’Neill has fostered saw 35-year-old Aaron Hughes fly in from Melbourne in the knowledge he would be on the bench. The discipline O’Neill refers to is shown in the team having the lowest number of bookings in the group.

Lafferty is Group F’s leading scorer, his six goals turning Northern Ireland from a side O’Neill described as “difficult to beat” into one that can win.

O’Neill says Lafferty’s rangy physicality is not something many international defenders come across. Soon to be 28 and sent to Turkey on loan by Norwich City last season, Lafferty is the cutting edge of a  4-1-4-1 formation in which Chris Brunt’s dead-ball delivery is vital.

Brunt’s 71st-minute free-kick found McAuley’s head for Northern Ireland’s second on Friday.

McAuley, like Lafferty and McLaughlin, has played in all seven games, and consistent selection is another element O’Neill stresses.

Seriously under-rated right-back McLaughlin , 24, has been at Fleetwood for three years. His younger brother Ryan is at Liverpool.

Yesterday McLaughlin could have been lining up against Rochdale. Tomorrow he is lining up against Hungary, thinking of France.

It will be 10 years to the day since David Healy’s rifled shot beat England at Windsor Park, not

that this side requires omens. It’s making history of its own.

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