BELFAST, March 29 (Reuters) - Northern Ireland’s soccer fans were “ecstatic” on Thursday, after Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Sweden propelled their team to the top of their Euro 2008 qualifying group.
“Dream Night” read the headline on the front of the Belfast Telegraph newspaper. “We’re not Brazil but we’re getting closer.”
Northern Ireland came from behind at Windsor Park to beat Sweden 2-1, boosting their hopes of qualifying for their first major finals since they took part in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. They have never previously qualified for a European Championship final.
The team, coached by Lawrie Sanchez, are unbeaten since an opening 3-0 defeat to Iceland last September and Wednesday’s win moved them on to 13 points from six matches, one ahead of Sweden who lost their 100 per cent record after four straight wins.
Sweden have a game in hand over the Irish as do third-placed Spain on nine points.
Most of the praise on Thursday was reserved for striker David Healy who scored both their goals against the Swedes, making him the competition’s overall top scorer with nine goals after hat-tricks against Spain and Liechtenstein and another against Latvia.
Already Northern Ireland’s all-time scorer, he took his tally to 29 goals in 56 internationals and is emerging as Northern Ireland’s most popular football hero for years.
“Hero Healy mashes Swedes”, read the headline in the Irish Examiner which joined with other newspapers south of the border in the Republic of Ireland in congratulating the side.
“Another day, another magic show by Healy and Co,” was the verdict of the Irish Times while in Northern Ireland the Irish News declared “Superhero Healy does its again”.
Healy has been in and out of his Leeds United side struggling at the foot of the English Second Division — but could well play against Preston North End on Friday and face David Nugent, who scored on his England debut against Andorra on Wednesday.
Sanchez said he had “run out of words” to describe Healy but also warned against over-exuberance at this stage.
“We’ve had a great night tonight and we’ll enjoy it — but we’re only half way there, there’s a lot of football left to get through,” he said following the game.