For a long time after the final whistle Northern Ireland’s players soaked up the appreciation voiced by a green and white throng that had congregated in the east stand. The post-match communions between players and fans have been notable so far in this tournament for their warmth and sincerity; this particular show of love was well earned and followed a performance that suggested appearances on this stage could become commonplace for the debutants.
The better side won this encounter, that much was wholly obvious, but Austria were not allowed any measure of the comfort that had looked likely early on. Nothing was decided until Katharina Naschenweng, the substitute, had drilled in from an angle towards the end and Kenny Shiels’ team deserved credit for the way they clawed a foothold in the game. Although they will play for pride against England on Friday, they have already fostered plenty of it.
“I never had a dream when we took over that we could match Austria in a game and feel we could have got something,” Shiels said. “The best team won on the night but I feel we got close to them in quite a lot of the game.
“There were periods where we matched them and that’s a good sign that we’re making slight progress. In fact we’re making massive progress if you look at where we’ve come from.”
Austria departed to raptures from their own vocal support, who helped ensure a half-full St Mary’s remained abuzz throughout, but may yet discover their inability to rack up a bigger margin hinders their chances of progress. They faded after a blistering first 20 minutes that brought a deserved opener from Katharina Schiechtl and threatened more; although they were crisp in possession throughout and solid enough at the back to avoid any genuinely hairy moments, their attack never quite looked capable of cutting loose.
Not that it bothered the six players who interrupted the post-match press conference, featuring the coach Irene Fuhrmann and player of the match Barbara Dunst, with a conga to the soundtrack of Tiesto’s The Business. A repeat of their third-place finish in 2017 will take some doing but a team packed with talents from Germany’s Bundesliga clearly retains a healthy perspective.
“It was an uncomfortable opponent, as we expected,” said Dunst, who scored in October when Austria were held to a surprise World Cup qualifying draw in Belfast. “We managed to hold them away from our goal, nevertheless. We are at the Euros and there’s no weak opponent.”
The Eintracht Frankfurt winger Dunst contrived the first half’s best piece of skill, instinctively seeking out the top corner after the otherwise impressive Jackie Burns had gifted her the ball only for the keeper to recover and flip her effort on to the crossbar. By then Schiechtl had opened the scoring with a close-range finish after Julia Hickelsberger-Füller’s free-kick, delivered low from the right corner of the box, had snicked off Julie Nelson and into her path.
“We didn’t set the wall up right,” Shiels said, frustrated that his players had not learned from a similar incident in their 4-1 defeat by Norway. The goal had been coming, though: the sharp Nicole Billa had shot into the side netting after running clear and had been denied a near-post finish by some timely defending.
Northern Ireland’s first-half threat was limited to a couple of determined sorties from Lauren Wade but Shiels was pleased enough that they had steadied the ship by half-time.
They became noticeably more assertive after the hour, stepping up the pitch and causing a couple of minor alarms. The chance they craved almost materialised when Kirsty McGuinness worked magic on the left before centring for Wade, who was denied by a crucial intervention from Hickelsberger-Füller. Shortly afterwards Rachel Furness looped a header on to the roof of the net; that was as close as they came but, even as spaces finally opened back up for Austria late on, it felt slightly cruel when Naschenweng burst through and finished strongly.
It said enough that Northern Ireland did not look out of place. “What a massive change we’ve made to our own self-esteem and self-belief,” Shiels said. Running England similarly close could give them the biggest boost yet.