EURO 2016: From the torpor of Nice to the euphoria of Lyon, Michael O’Neill deserves praise for NI’s Euro 2016 recovery

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill celebrates after Niall McGinn made it 2-0 against Ukraine
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill celebrates after Niall McGinn made it 2-0 against Ukraine

Fairytales can curdle quickly, and on the Côte d’Azur last Sunday Northern Ireland’s mesmerising journey swerved into an unforgiving mire.

Despite being unbeaten in their previous 12 games, Michael O’Neill’s men were a shadow of the side that glided through the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

They had finished top of their qualifying group and went on to preserve their unbeaten streak in subsequent warm-up friendlies.

Confidence had swelled so much that there were bold forecasts that Northern Ireland could progress to the knockout stages in France.

But on Sunday, a 1-0 defeat to Poland punctured those lofty ambitions.

A narrow scoreline, yes, but Poland’s dominance over a shackled and shell-shocked Northern Ireland did little to raise optimism.

O’Neill was pilloried for his side’s approach to the clash in Nice.

Such was the torpor on show, the display at the Allianz Riviera left everyone utterly deflated.

Some fans were ready to define O’Neill’s managerial credentials on that one performance.

“We wait 30 years to reach a major finals and they serve up this?” was one voice of frustration on Twitter.

“O’Neill was totally negative with his team selection and tactics,” was another popular train of thought.

Striker Kyle Lafferty summed up the Polish malaise when he said the display was “not the Northern Ireland that qualified for France”.

He also confidently declared that the boys in green would ‘put things right’ in Lyon against Ukraine.

It was sage advice.

Lafferty’s influence on Thursday’s historic 2-0 win over Ukraine would prove merely vocal – he was an unused substitute as O’Neill made no less than five changes to the side that lost to Poland.

The 46-year-old manager went for a bold 4-3-3 formation – a signal of intent that was well received by many fans.

Northern Ireland abandoned the cautious approach that dogged them in Nice, adopting an attacking philosophy that was rewarded with second half goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn.

It was a heroic performance from O’Neill’s players – stoic and cavaliering in equal measure.

And after the victory in the city of the Gauls, suddenly hopes of reaching the knockout stages have been rekindled.

Some would argue that anything from here on in should be regarded as a bonus for Northern Ireland. After all, they proved their point on Thursday evening.

But you can be certain that O’Neill and his players won’t be treating Tuesday’s Group C finale with Germany as their ‘au revoir’ to France.

Northern Ireland have everything to play for in Paris, there is an incentive and target to aim for.

Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis captured the mood after beating Ukraine when he said: “We have to cherish this result. These nights don’t come around too often.

“We know the Germany game is going to be extremely difficult but what’s not to look forward to?

“We’re going to Paris, playing in front of a full house and our fans will be there in massive numbers and in high spirits again.”

Any Northern Ireland success is rarely touched upon without players mentioning their loyal support.

The Green and White Army have been a credit throughout Euro 2016 – they have represented Northern Ireland and the football family with dignity and charm.

They are not just ‘daring to dream’ in France, they are living the dream of watching their team play in a first-ever European Championship, and a first finals in 30 years.

Darren Rodgers and Robert Rainey were two such fans who made the journey to cheer on their beloved Northern Ireland.

Sadly, their deaths have put the whole Euros experience firmly into blunt perspective.

Ballymena man Darren, aged just 24, died after falling over a railing in an accident hours after his team’s match against Poland.

Robert (62), from Belfast and affectionately known as Archie, is understood to have suffered a heart attack in one of the stands during Thursday’s game against Ukraine.

Northern Ireland’s players wore black armbands in memory of Darren Rodgers during Thursday’s win in Lyon.

The Green and White Army held an emotional round of applause in the 24th minute, with the sentiment echoed by Ukraine’s supporters inside the stadium.

It is with a great sense of sadness that O’Neill and his players will once again wear those black armbands on Tuesday night, this time to remember Robert Rainey.

Northern Ireland’s supporters will no doubt pay their own tribute.

Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the emotion of football. We go overboard with our reactions and indulge in hyperbole if our team loses.

But if we learn anything from the past six days, it is that life is far more beautiful than this game we call football.

RIP Darren and Robert.