Northern Ireland on course for Euros

Euro 2016 (AP Photo)
Euro 2016 (AP Photo)

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."

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