The Green and White Army got their Euro 2016 campaign up and running with a deserved win over their Group C counterparts in the pouring rain in Lyon on Thursday evening
Northern Ireland secured their maiden win at a European Championship finals as a second-half header from Gareth McAuley and a late Niall McGinn strike defeated Ukraine 2-0 in a bitterly cold Lyon.
Defender McAuley powered home Oliver Norwood’s deep free-kick in the 49th minute to score his country’s first goal at a major tournament since Colin Clarke found the net against Spain at the 1986 World Cup.
Not even heavy rain – which turned into huge hailstones in the second half, causing the game to be suspended for two minutes – could dampen the spirits of those wearing green inside a sodden Parc Olympique Lyonnais, and they wrapped up a historic win when McGinn lashed home in injury time.
While Ukraine are now mired at the bottom of Group C without a point after two games – needing a favour from Germany when they take on Poland to keep them in the competition – the victory for Northern Ireland rekindles their hopes of qualifying for the last 16.
It also vindicated manager Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s decision to make five changes to the XI that started the 1-0 loss to Poland on Sunday.
Kyle Lafferty was one of those to be left out – a surprising move considering the forward scored seven goals in his country’s successful qualifying campaign.
But O’Neill’s selection shake-up had the desired effect and resulted in a performance with far more pace and purpose from the get go.
Stuart Dallas tested Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov from long range before the Northern Ireland’s fans broke out in applause in the 24th minute in memory of fellow supporter Darren Rodgers, who died in an accident in Nice in the early hours of Monday.
Craig Cathcart planted a header from a corner just wide towards the end of a first half that also saw defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy have Ukraine’s only notable attempt at goal, driving a low shot into goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s arms.
A glancing header from Yevhen Seleznyov just missed the target early in the second half, but McAuley made sure he hit the target with his opportunity soon afterwards.
Stationed at the back post, the West Brom defender rose high to meet Norwood’s curling delivery and aim a header across Pyatov, sparking wild scenes of Irish celebration both on the field and in the stands.
Seleznyov failed to take a similar opportunity for Ukraine – aiming his header straight at McGovern from an inswinging set-piece – just prior to the game being suspended due to heavy hailstone.
When play resumed, Viktor Kovalenko saw a well-struck drive drift just wide of the target with McGovern rooted to the spot.
Andriy Yarmolenko’s left-footed drive did force McGovern into a smart low save in the 90th minute, but Northern Ireland made sure of their first victory over Ukraine with a second goal deep into six minutes of stoppage time as Dallas’ shot was only parried and McGinn pounced.