LYON: Thrilled Northern Ireland celebrated their first victory in a tournament finals in 34 years after beating Ukraine 2-0 in Lyon in Group C of Euro 2016.
The last time the Ulstermen had finished in triumph was at the final whistle of their remarkable victory over hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup.
As for Ukraine, this defeat plus the subsquent draw between Germany and Poland meant they were condemned to become the first nation already certain of being eliminated so soon.
Victory in Lyon, after an opening defeat by Poland, revived their hopes of snatching a place in the second round knockout stage.
West Bromwich Albion defender Gareth McAuley headed in Oliver Norwood’s free-kick shortly after halftime before a hailstorm forced the players off for two minutes. The Irish then held out until stoppage time when Niall McGinn scored a decisive second goal.
However, Michael O’Neill’s men may yet need a draw against Germany in Paris on Tuesday in their last match.
O’Neill, needing more attacking options, made five changes from the team beaten by Poland, including relegating top scorer Kyle Lafferty to the substitutes’ bench.
Lafferty’s place went to 24-year-old Conor Washington, the QPR striker who was working as a postman and playing for St Ives in the ninth tier of English football the last time the Euros were staged in 2012.
He and Jamie Ward proved a handful for a Ukraine team who had kept 21 clean sheets in their previous 39 games. Then Northern Ireland’s strength from set-pieces told again as 36-year-old veteran McAuley converted Norwood’s taken free-kick.
After a hail shower that saw the players withdrawn and substitutions, six minutes of stoppage time were added on. But the tension was dispelled when Aberdeen winger McGinn pounced to seal victory.
McAuley, 36, ended the match having become the second-oldest scorer at the Euro finals while McGinn netted the latest-ever goal.
O’Neill: “We have given ourselves a great chance. It will take various permutations for us not to finish third. That gives us a shout at least. What we need to do is try to nick a point [against Germany]. We will let the players enjoy this and then the minds will switch to the Germans.
“It’s hard to put into words and absorb it all at this time. Everything good about Northern Ireland was in that stadium today.”
McAuley added: “Nobody has given us a chance. Lots of people said we wouldn’t get a point. We weren’t at it against Poland – to our standards, the intensity we wanted to play at – but tonight was a lot better.
“It’s special to score, it’ll sink in probably over the next few days. We’ve got a tough game to look forward to now, and we’ve got something to play for – that’s what we wanted.”
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