There was a beguiling pink sunset on the horizon; there was a full stadium rocking with noise and colour; there was a victory — another one; there was a clean sheet — another one; there was stern defence and some flowing one-touch midfield passing; there were enthralled Ugandan children singing and cartwheeling at half-time; there was vibrancy, smiles and an atmosphere to remember.
There was even a wave to the crowd from Michael O’Neill. Windsor Park, Belfast on Monday night had it all.
At its end Northern Ireland had once again done what Northern Ireland do under the talented O’Neill: exceed expectation.
Northern Ireland lit up the skies of Belfast with an incredible victory over the Czech Republic
In overcoming the Czech Republic 2-0, O’Neill’s unflinching players had sealed their grip on second place in a group dominated, as expected, by world champions Germany. But that is a dry analysis. This was so much more than that.
This euphoric night carried echoes of the defeat of Israel in 1981 at Windsor Park, which led to the 1982 World Cup finals appearance, or the goal from Ian Stewart which beat West Germany here a year later in the European Championship. The defeat of Greece to reach Euro 2016 was not too bad either. Understandably, O’Neill hoped his players will ‘cherish’ it.
In the 1980s Northern Ireland had established, experienced top-flight players and a European Cup-winning captain in Martin O’Neill.
On Monday they had a team made up of two players from League One, five from the Championship, a 37-year-old in Aaron Hughes who has played two of Hearts’ eight games this season and three men from the Premier League.
On the bench was Shay McCartan, who joined Bradford City from Accrington Stanley in June, and as the Burton Mail pointed out gleefully, two players from Burton Albion. The Czechs, meanwhile, contained two players who will start for Basle against Manchester United next week in the Champions League.
The inspired performance has pushed Northern Ireland closer to the 2018 Russia World Cup