Northern Ireland made the short trip to Hampden Park for their first match of 2015, a friendly against Scotland.
If 2014 was a year of great progress, Northern Ireland will be hoping 2015 continues in that fashion, which would make 2016 a very enjoyable year.
The lack of an international date in February this year necessitated this game, as both sides wanted to give players game time to ensure they don’t go into vital qualifiers this week “cold”
With Scotland facing Gibraltar at home on Sunday, they obviously chose Hampden Park for this game so they would have two games in Glasgow, and not have the inconvenience of travel withing Scotland.
It marked a departure in policy from the Scottish FA, as recent friendlies (barring England, which would obviously have a high demand for tickets) have been played at Easter Road or Pittodrie.
Either of those venues would have been perfectly suitable for this game. Either venue would have represented a first for me – i’ve never been to Pittodrie, and i’ve never been in the away end at Easter Road.
Northern Ireland were hoping to improve on (relatively) recent results against Scotland, failing to score in their previous three meetings (0-3, 0-0, 0-1)
I’d been to Hampden Park twice before, for Northern Ireland’s last game in Scotland in 2008, and the Scottish Cup Semi-Final in 2013 between Falkirk and Hibs, which took place on a weekend when I was in Glasgow, so I knew how to get there and what the local area was like, which was handy.
Somewhere near Hampden Park I wanted to visit but never got the chance to was Cathkin Park, former ground of Third Lanark, now a public park, with the terracing and pitch still there.
A video from 2011 of the venue can be found here.
Unsurprisingly, both teams made changes from their previous qualifier in November. If the players on the pitch were unfamiliar, the kits they were wearing was just as unfamiliar, with both teams wearing their away kit – Northern Ireland in blue and navy, Scotland in white, pink and yellow.
Northern Ireland had an early attacking moment when a cross was whipped into the box, but it was Scotland who had most of the attacking play and attempts on goal, Michael McGovern saving from a Steven Fletcher early on. Most of Scotland’s attacking play came through Ikechi Anya.
McGovern had a busy night. Curiously enough, Michael McGovern was playing in the lat match at Hampden Park I was at. He was busy that day as well, saving a penalty.
Northern Ireland didn’t help themselves, giving the ball away too easily in defensive positions. Too many Scotland attacks began that way.
Despite that, Northern Ireland looked good when they broke, though their attacks weren’t as frequent as people hoped. The best moment came when Oliver Norwood fired a shot over after a flick on from Josh Magennis.
The second-half saw the inevitible multiple substitutions. Scotland were still on top but didn’t have as many chances as they did in the first-half.
As each minute passed it looked like being a 0-0 draw. As the game neared it’s end, Northern Ireland had some attacks, the best of which saw Josh Magennis fired wide from a wide position. This was followed by a flurry of corners.
With five minutes to go, Scotland won a corner, which was headed home by Christophe Berra. It was a disappointing goal to concede. Even though Scotland were the better team, it was frustrating getting so close to a draw to lose the game.
Once they went 1-0 up, Scotland were able to see the game out, Northern Ireland couldn’t even get a chance to equalise.
Staying in Scottish football, Edinburgh City won the Lowland League, setting up a play-off against the Highland League winners to play-off against the team that finishes bottom of League Two. If they go up, I might go and see them if I go to Edinburgh in August.
So, Northern Ireland’s year is off to a losing start, but this wasn’t a must-win game. Finland on Sunday is. Let’s hope we can do it.