Events elsewhere on Friday meant Northern Ireland had the comfort of a play-off position for Euro 2020 before this joust with the Netherlands got under way. Still, there was the motivation of affording Michael O’Neill a performance for the ages in what may well mark the Stoke manager’s last appearance in charge of Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.
O’Neill’s players did not deliver that but this showing was the epitome of spirit and determination, as has been so prevalent in recent times. The Netherlands left Belfast perfectly content; they have booked a place in next summer’s finals.
Northern Ireland will rue Steven Davis’s first-half penalty miss, during a period of the game when the Netherlands were grasping for air.
The Netherlands dominated the second half without bombarding the Northern Ireland goal. Cause for that resonates in the robust defensive approach that has typified O’Neill’s spell.
This marked a first Dutch visit to Belfast on full international duty since 1977. A glance back at that fixture shows Messrs Best and Cruyff were involved with Jimmy Nicholl, now Northern Ireland’s assistant manager, playing 90 minutes. A narrow away win edged the Netherlands towards the 1978 World Cup, where they were beaten finalists. Four years later, Northern Ireland enjoyed their finest journey in the same competition.
The European Championships have provided the backdrop to O’Neill’s success. Qualification in 2016 was the first for a major tournament in three decades. From that position, the manager really could do no wrong. Yet there was always the lingering, nagging fear among Northern Irish fans that O’Neill’s work would be suitably recognised by an English club.
A video tribute to O’Neill’s tenure preceded kick-off. Otherwise, though, this had the feel of a typical Windsor Park occasion. The rambunctious backdrop to Northern Ireland home matches in this compact stadium typify how O’Neill has lifted the mood. This scene also, logically, helps the team.
Northern Ireland duly started in upbeat fashion. Corry Evans almost capitalised on the dalliance of Jasper Cillessen within five minutes, with only the break of the ball saving the Dutch goalkeeper’s blushes. As John Magennis flashed a header wide just seconds later Northern Ireland were again, to coin their mantra, daring to dream.
The Netherlands were not entirely minus threat in the first half, albeit the propensity of Ryan Babel in particular to stray offside must have irked Ronald Koeman.
Steven Berghuis spurned the visitors’ best early opportunity by mis-hitting a shot on to the bar after the trickery of Quincy Promes baffled the Northern Ireland defence.
The first half was to be defined, though, by Davis’s miss. This marked an unfortunate episode for the Northern Ireland captain amid the celebration of his 116th appearance, a milestone which means he surpasses David Beckham as the most capped British midfielder of all time.
The Dutch, with a degree of merit, will point out Northern Ireland were lucky to be awarded their spot kick after Joël Veltman was adjudged to have handled. What the defender was supposed to do, when all of a yard away from George Saville at the time of a flick from Paddy McNair’s cross, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the interminable delay as the Netherlands players protested vociferously affected Davis, who blasted high into the Belfast sky.
A 57th minute Ryan Babel header, comfortably held by Bailey Peacock-Farrell, punctured a tame opening to the second period. This was also the trigger for a spell of Dutch dominance. Minus the injured Memphis Depay the key question surrounded how ruthless Holland could prove; and, indeed, the extent to which they wanted to be with a point sufficient to seal a finals spot. The visitors were content with parity. “We love you Michael, we do” chanted the home support; as if there really was any dubiety attached to that.