Yesterday, at Euro 2016, a country with a population of 1.8 million beat a country with a population twenty-five times the size of it. Northern Ireland, with players from Hamilton Academical, Melbourne FC and Reading beat a Ukraine side who fielded a team that, with the exception of right-back Artem Fedetskiy, all play for Champions League clubs. After a highly disappointing opening loss against Poland, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill made five changes to his starting eleven for the crucial second fixture-and it paid off.
It was a must-win game for the Green and White Army, as they now face a backs-to-the-wall match against world champions Germany. With three points in the bag they are looking good to land third place in Group C and nab one of the four 'best third place finisher' spots in the last 16. And the army of fans in France to support Steve Davis, Jonny Evans et al are having the time of their lives.
Due to the widening of the number of teams allowed into the Euros, fans of countries not typically involved in major competition have been in a state of almost opiate delight, the sheer novelty of being involved adding to the sense of euphoria and utter delight coursing through supporters from countries like Northern Ireland. Celebrations are only briefly punctuated by rest, food and occasional toilet breaks, and it is not only 'average joe' fans in the midst of the partying. Northern Ireland and Newcastle legend Keith Gillespie was right in the thick of the action in the wake of his country's famous win.
— colin murray (@ColinMurray) June 16, 2016
Gillespie will be hoping that his side can take example from him and ride the wave of excitement, all the way to the last 16 and a potential match-up against hosts France-or potentially England, a fixture which, as Vincent Kompany pointed out, could well lead to a scenario that catalyses international confusion.
If England faces Northern Ireland will we hear the same national anthem twice? Will they all sing it together.. twice? I'm confused. 🤔
— Vincent Kompany (@VincentKompany) June 12, 2016
Even if, as is expected, the side referred to affectionately as 'our wee country' by its supporters falls at the hurdle after the group stage, it will have been an incredible adventure for the second smallest country in the Euros. Results such as this and Iceland's incredible 1-1 draw with Portugal have surely justified the decision to widen the competition from sixteen to twenty-four countries.
But next up, it's Germany, and the arse-scratching, ball-sniffing brilliance of Jogi Low.