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Northern Ireland's missed opportunity

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Joel Taggart | 17:17 UK time, Monday, 7 September 2009

I cannot remember feeling as low during a match commentary as I did on Saturday night when that Jonny Evans clearance hit Aaron Hughes and bounced passed Maik Taylor into the net to level the scores in Chorzow.

I was gutted for the players who had given so much and came within a whisker of recording an away win against significant opponents, probably for the first time since we beat Austria in 1994 and Keith Gillespie marked his arrival on the international stage.

Kyle Lafferty scores Northern Ireland's goal away to Poland

Just like that game in Vienna, one player will forever be associated with the game on Saturday night. It was the game in which Kyle Lafferty fulfilled all the great potential that we knew he had as a target man through the middle, the perfect foil for David Healy.

He was outstanding, led the line brilliantly, showed great composure when presented with the chance from which he scored in the opening half and gave the two Polish central defenders a torrid evening.

The biggest compliment that I can pay Lafferty is that the game changed as soon as he had to leave the action with his injury and, if as it seems, he will miss the game against Slovakia, it will be a huge blow to Northern Ireland's chances of qualification.

Away wins in the group are precious, if you disregard the matches involving San Marino, there has only been one away win in Group Three so far - Slovakia managed it in Prague against the Czech Republic.

The extra two points from a win in Poland would have given us such an advantage, would have eased the pressure just a little bit more, and perhaps have taken the wind from the sails of the Poles.

Yes, it was a great point away from home, and while the squad and the manager are making all the right noises in public, they probably know in their heart of hearts after seeing how the game developed, it was a Polish team there for the taking.

Luck, they say, evens itself out. Remember Slovenia hitting the crossbar just before we scored in Belfast, remember the Boruc bobble, perhaps the luck was being evened up when Lafferty was forced to go off.

However, that result has gone, we got a point. We will only know if it was one gained or two dropped at the end of the campaign, so let's regroup and move on.

The scenario is now a simple one. Two wins are required from two games and at worst we should have a play-off place.

The incentive for the players on Wednesday night could not be greater, win the game and you head back to your clubs knowing that Northern Ireland will sit proudly at the top of the Group Three table.

The pressure will have shifted to the shoulders of the other sides who play in the first round of October games while we have a night off.

A draw in the other game on Wednesday night would be ideal. Slovenia at this stage are effectively level on points with us and ahead on goal difference as their final game of the campaign is against San Marino.

We need them to drop points against Poland or Slovakia. Draws for the others are the name of the game, but it will count for little if we do not win our last two matches and that is going to be tough if Warren Feeney and Lafferty are missing for both.

So let us prepare ourselves for what could be the greatest of all those Windsor nights in our recent international history, better even than England, better than Spain, simply because of the significance of the match.

For the first time in a long time there is something at stake. It is even more important than Denmark in the last campaign because this time our destiny is still in our own hands.

Slovakia will not relish the thought of coming here so let's get ready for the biggest game at Windsor Park for nearly 28 years and give the players the backing they deserve on what could be the most nerve-jangling, spine-tingling, emotional roller-coaster of an evening.

I just have a really bad feeling that the journey could come to a shuddering halt. I hope I am wrong.

Some other bits and bobs. Well done to the 900 or so fans who made the long trip to Chorzow. I met many of them while they were there and I am so pleased to hear that they made it home safely.

Also thanks for the song while you were all locked in the ground after the game which gave some advice regarding what we should do with our copy of a local Sunday newspaper.

I can always be sure that on every away trip there will be a song from the fans that will make me laugh. You never let me down.

Also thanks to the fan who came and introduced himself to the BBC team for the game.

Proudly he marched towards John O'Neill, capped 39 times for his country and member of two World Cup squads. The fan extended his hand and said, 'Michael, great to meet you'. We pointed out to him that Michael Hughes was the one sitting opposite John at the other side of the table! I suppose they look alike after a few pints.


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