Blog: Northern Ireland underwhelming in opener, must make Euro 2016 memorable

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Sunday evening provided a new sporting experience for me – watching my country play in a major tournament.

There was excitement tinged with nerves, an odd mix given we can’t genuinely lay claim to any real expectation of success.

Getting out of the group would be a dream scenario.

Still, the opener was a little underwhelming for the green and white army.

Perhaps not for the thousands who have travelled and made a name for themselves already with their first class vocal support and ability to befriend.

But for those watching at home the initial experience of our first major tournament in 30 years left us wanting a little more.

It’s so rare that Northern Ireland get to these championships that we’ve surely to make this appearance count, make it memorable.

Steve Davis, a truly excellent footballer and by all accounts a great ambassador for our wee country, said the performance in a 1-0 defeat by Poland was ‘not good enough.’

There was, evidently, a gulf in the quality of the two teams.

Northern Ireland seemed to spend too much time acknowledging that fact, remaining compact, being ‘hard to beat’ and not enough time getting amongst the Poles, unsettling them, having a go.

Jonny Evans had it right, getting into a ding-dong tussle with Robert Lewandowski and for the most part keeping the star attraction quiet.

But with the ball, on the all too rare occasion we had it on the floor, there wasn’t an abundance of belief that we could do anything with it, without sacrificing space or defensive shape.

And yet, there were half chances here or there that showed a goal wasn’t an impossibility. It never is.

When you have Oliver Norwood standing over a set-piece and Gareth McAuley bouncing around in the box ready to attack the ball, there’s always a chance.

Sadly, Norwood’s delivery was uncharacteristically poor.

Kyle Lafferty ran around and chased lost causes but was given little support and very little service.

The second half was a little better for Northern Ireland and Davis could have created mayhem in the stands had he connected with a clever free-kick.

Alas, game one has come and gone with a whimper.

No one can criticise the man who has masterminded qualification for the Euros, Michael O’Neill has done a phenomenal job.

Equally, no one would have a bad word to say if Northern Ireland went out of this tournament on their shields, having given each opponent a torrid time, having set out to win.

The players have promised more ahead of the Ukraine game on Thursday.

It took until the second half for them to shake off the occasion and realise they were in a game of football.

There’s no problem with being beaten, not when you come up against better opposition, not when you don’t normally make it this far.

Sunday wasn’t a true reflection of what this Northern Ireland team can do, how they can play, and they now have two remaining chances to give us all something glorious to remember 2016 by and memories for the travelling fans to cherish forever.

Sadly, Darren Rodgers will not return home from this tournament, having gone out to support Northern Ireland.

His death after an accident in Nice is a horribly bleak moment for the country’s footballing family.

People say football pales in significance at such times, but it mattered to Darren, it spurred him to venture to France to cheer on his national team.

Hopefully the outpouring of grief and support from players like Davis, McAuley and Lafferty will provide comfort, even just the smallest crumb, for those he leaves behind.