Following the summer holiday of a lifetime, Northern Ireland returned to World Cup Qualifying duties with the air of a return to work the first Monday of a new year. Drawn in a group comprising Germany, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino we had every rightful confidence that second place could be ours (though can we have another week off). I am being unfair and there is no suggestion that the team who set up in Prague in September 2016 were anything but professional and motivated.
It wasn’t a great game nonetheless with both sides able to claim they could have won it. Paddy McNair had the best chance for NI and they had perhaps one or two more including a bizarre open goal miss but 0-0 was more than acceptable bearing in mind that they were probably our nearest rivals for the second position. Just the one match in September broke us in well for the October doubleheader which was San Marino at home followed by the World Champions away in Hanover. Gulp!
The match at home to San Marino involved a bit of a party to mark the opening of the newly rebuilt (though postponed)Windsor Park due to collapsing stands. Local celebrities near and far had a march around the ground and clearly, some enjoyed it more than others. By seventy minutes we only had a Steve Davis penalty to separate a niggly but obdurate San Marino and ourselves ….oh and lest we forget the standard sending- off for the visitors which meant a hat-trick of them in the last three games against us. Clearly, the Red Hand annoys.
The arrival onto the pitch of Kyle Lafferty sorted out the nonsense as he cut ahead of a defender to pinch number two, headed on for Jamie Ward’s number three and in the final seconds grabbed his second. 4-0, thank you and good – night. That would have to sustain us as it took Germany less than twenty minutes to knock two past us a few days later in Hanover. No surprise but losing two headers in our own box from a corner for the first was not like us. The other goal we will accept. A better showing than a few months ago in Paris was a definite and after three games we had the number of points we hoped and expected.
Azerbaijan at home in November would be a proper test for us as they were leading the group after Germany. This match turned out to be very satisfying as for years, a bit of hope and expectation placed upon us caused internal terror. Perhaps not the best phrase to use in connection with anything Northern Irish. Not this time as a second 4-0 made it look routine. Lafferty had set us on our way with a clover finish from a Magennis throw – in and then Gareth McAuley headed his ninth for us in from a free kick. At this point the defenders turned into regular Agueros as Conor McGlaughlin headed in a technically difficult chance from a corner and then was really not sure how to celebrate. Finally, left back and returning injured warrior Chris Brunt struck a fine shot into the corner looking the part with a bandaged head. We clinically moved ahead of our opponents to see the year out second in the group.
So late March once again and we are actually playing Norway competitively for once and definitely not for null points for those of you with longer Eurovision memories. A win here would really put daylight (which is perhaps cruel bearing in mind they get less of it up there) between ourselves and the Norsemen. Step up Jamie Ward who after four minutes miscontrolled, and then turned and fired low into the corner. Our nearest issue was the crossbar being thumped but a clever through ball from Davis allowed Conor Washington to get another home goal and basically that was that- we saw the game out in a way teams like us don’t normally do.
Halfway through the group and we were sitting pretty. The regular season would have ended by about three weeks before our next competitive bash in the middle of June in Baku. We had a friendly for the first time against New Zealand and a clever move set up by Josh Magennis and finished by Liam Boyce gave the team a good run out. 1-0. Away to Azerbaijan was sure to be tough but we could not leave without a point at least. However, we have never had much fun out there.
Big Gareth McAuley was off before half an hour with a thigh injury which clearly had not been reinforced in the Black Country. The team was not very cohesive and was showing signs of end of season wear. It was humming down to a 0-0 draw until a clever pass from Jonny Evans set Stuart Dallas up for an extra- time winner that struck oil. Jonny Evans said at the end that it was the first time he had felt sorry for the opposing team. We’ll leave you to that Jonny. Yet again and only on NI watch for the third time in my life, I watched a substitute being substituted – Niall McGinn enjoying this moment.
A great way to finish the season and we could actually confirm second place if we won our two September clashes against San Marino and the Czechs. Heady stuff. For Northern Ireland fans this is all very dodgy. Rocking up in San Marino expecting a win is something we should never ever do. It is like swimming around the Pacific with a bleeding arm and the shark bites your balls off for fun rather than because he is hungry. For seventy-odd minutes, the testicles were looming ever larger as the nearest we had come was a Magennis header off the post. Washington might have done better but it wasn’t until Shane Ferguson came on and introduced different things left of centre that we got a proper hold on the game.
A returned ball into the six-yard furnace by Davis enabled big Josh to crack the seal and then Washington crossed for him to head his second. A pretty harsh handball gave us a penalty and Southampton Steve did the honours. Little did we know that this harsh penalty was just a dry run for us later on. An amazing red sky encased Windsor Park the following Monday for the visit of the Czech Republic. Corry Evans’ return from nine months of injury was very welcome. Win this and we were going to be delighting more than shepherds.
A returned free kick into the area by Ollie Norwood found a still roving Evans senior who headed his second international goal. Still, in our set piece manager, Chris Brunt made it West Brom 2-0 Czech Republic with a cleverly bent free kick. Yet again high organisation in the second half ensured they really were unable to get at us and now nine points clear with two games to go we were uncatchable in second place, though would still have to compete with other second-placed teams for a playoff spot.
All this allowed a bit of a night off against ….(well who would you want to play if it wasn’t critical…) Germany. Not that such conjecture mattered much as within ninety seconds they had fired a rocket into South Belfast with a bit more accuracy than they did in 1941. The second had a touch of the V2 about it as well and to be honest their third late on was well due. That said we were playing rightly and new cap George Saville should perhaps have scored before Josh got a header in the last minute.
So to cap it all off a Sunday night in Oslo saw the group’s final flourish. The team heard just before the game that due to Scotland’s defeat we were indeed confirmed playoff contenders. As most of the team were on yellow cards it was little surprise that we succumbed to a tame 1-0 defeat only brightened up by Chris Brunt. His own goal was so awkward it looked as if said shark had indeed taken a bite out of his nether regions.
Still, unused to defeats and goals conceded we sat up straight to the challenge that was those men of peace, chronology and order. Never mind a penalty decision that had the Swiss cows stampeding, it was a shocking NI performance with not a single shot on goal. The return in Basel was much improved but over the two legs we didn’t have enough and they took their place in Russia with a one-goal aggregate win.
The penalty incident will stand through the mists of time and it was some surprise to hear that the Romanian referee was indeed a doctor. Really? I will resist remarks about ophthalmologists. But would you like to be diagnosed by him?
Picture a waiting room in Bucharest. Receptionist – “Dr. Hategan will see you now”
Patient – “After you.”
Next Patient – “ No, after you ”