Northern Ireland’s spirit once again came to the fore for boss Michael O’Neill as his understrength and undercooked side claimed a dramatic 1-0 success over Azerbaijan.
Stuart Dallas’ first competitive international goal in the second minute of stoppage time earned the Northern Irish all three World Cup qualifying points when it looked like they would be fortunate to escape the stifling Baku heat with a draw.
Already missing eight of their players from last summer’s Euros due to injury, retirement and, in Conor Washington’s case, a wedding, Gareth McAuley’s first-half withdrawal because of a thigh problem further depleted a team that were relieved that both Ramil Sheydayev and Afran Ismayilov blasted over from great openings.
O’Neill’s side hung on, though, and when Jonny Evans’ brilliant pass found Dallas inside the penalty area late on, the Leeds winger smashed in the winner to keep Northern Ireland second in Group C and on track to reach Russia next year.
“This was the most difficult game that we could have had on the 10th of June in Baku but it has been very difficult because of the conditions and with the players’ seasons being finished,” O’Neill said.
“I think the spirit was everything tonight. Three, four years ago we would have lost this game 1-0 and people would not be surprised by that.
“We have eight players missing from the squad in France and losing McAuley was a big blow. The result tonight is testament to the spirit that is in the team.
“It was an extremely tough game, as we knew it would be against a very tough team. This team are a very good team.
“We stayed in the game, fought hard and we got a lucky break to win the game but it was a difficult game for us, with the conditions and also with a number of our players who have not played for nearly six weeks.
“We knew it would be difficult but we’re grateful to get the result and I can understand Azerbaijan’s frustration.
“Jonny and Aaron (Hughes) were excellent at centre-back and for Jonny to find that composure in the box... Stuart did a huge amount of work in the game and showed great quality to finish as he did.”
Dallas’ goal will have delighted the 300 or so of the Green and White Army, who will hope their next journey this far east will be to Russia for next summer’s World Cup.
Moments before the winner, O’Neill had replaced winger Niall McGinn with full-back Lee Hodson and seemed content to settle for a scoreless draw.
“I’m much happier that it finished 1-0 but had it finished 0-0 it would not have been a bad result,” O’Neill claimed.
“The game was always going to be very tight and we took the chance which was what the game was about. We took our chance and we’re delighted with the three points.”
O’Neill claimed Azerbaijan’s frustration was understandable and their manager Robert Prosinecki’s mood was perhaps summed up by his animated reaction when asked if he was now leaving to join Turkish club Bursaspor.
The surly Croat knocked the press conference table, causing a glass in front of him to smash, and claimed, with support from the two media officers alongside him, that he “did not want to talk about it”.
“You have seen my team was in the best condition, played a good game, but Northern Ireland scored in the last minute,” he said.
“We had four opportunities to score but we couldn’t. I saw the statistics, 70 per cent of the ball, but we lost in the last minute.”