Northern Ireland’s striker Kyle Lafferty celebrates after scoring their late equaliser during the Euro 2016 qualifying group F match between Northern Ireland and Hungary at Windsor Park in Belfast.
Kyle Lafferty’s priceless late equaliser kept Northern Ireland within touching distance of an historic berth at Euro 2016 as the 10-man hosts rescued a 1-1 draw against Hungary on Monday.
Michael O’Neill’s side could have secured a first ever appearance at the European Championships with a victory at Windsor Park, but they ended a dramatic encounter relieved to avoid a potentially fatal defeat.
Their berth in next year’s finals in France looked in jeopardy after Michael McGovern’s failure to hold a routine free-kick allowed Hungary’s Richard Guzmics to put Hungary ahead with 16 minutes remaining.
To make matters worse for the Irish, Chris Baird was sent off in the closing stages.
But, displaying the tenacious spirit that has fuelled their unexpected Group F challenge, Ireland equalised deep into stoppage-time through Norwich striker Lafferty’s seventh goal of the qualifying campaign.
Northern Ireland have never qualified for the European Championships in 13 previous attempts, with even Manchester United legend George Best unable to lead his country to the continent’s international showpiece.
But Lafferty’s strike at the end of a nerve-ridden night means Ireland will qualify for a first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup if they beat lowly Greece at home in their next match on October 8.
Placed among the fifth seeded minnows in the qualification draw, O’Neill’s group leaders have defied all expectations and sit one point ahead of Romania and four ahead of Hungary with two games left.
“It was nerve wracking to say the least,” O’Neill said. “We dominated the first half but Hungary came into it. It was a mistake for the goal but then we saw true grit.
“It’s a massive point for us. It wasn’t vintage, but it was pure theatre.”
Lafferty added: “The fans came here for a party but the champagne is on ice. We have two games left and we need one more push.”
Hungary, who had only suffered one Group F defeat themselves, harboured hopes of closing the gap on the leaders and they threatened first when Balazs Dzsudzsak fired wide from 20 yards.
Lafferty then made a rash challenge that drew a booking and ruled him out of the Greece game.
The hosts went close for the first time through Olivier Norwood, whose dipping free-kick was pushed out by veteran goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly.
Yet Kiraly’s trademark tracksuit bottoms showed few signs of grass stains in the first half as O’Neill’s team laboured to prise open the well-drilled Hungarian rearguard.
As the game wore on, Hungary’s incisive counter-attacks posed more danger to a sometimes creaky Irish defence.
Former West Bromwich Albion midfielder Zoltan Gera rose to head narrowly wide at the far post and then drilled a powerful strike just off-target.
Even so, there was still little to separate the teams until McGovern’s moment of madness in the 74th minute.
Dzsudzsak’s free-kick should have brought a routine catch from the Hamilton keeper, but he let the ball slip through his hands, leaving Wisla Krakow defender Guzmics with the simple task of prodding home from close-range.
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