Wales and Northern Ireland faced each other in their opening match of 2016, as both countries begin their preparation for this summer’s European Championship – a sentence that both sets of supporters are pinching themselves to believe.
It’s the little milestones that make it so real. In the build-up to this game, it was announced that Manic Street Preachers would be doing Wales official song. Obviously, Bonnie Tyler and Shakin Stevens were unavailable. Sadly, we didn’t get a pre-match concert from the Manics.
Supporters buying a programme got a free Panini Euro 2016 sticker book. If ever there was a sign that a major international tournament is getting close, it’s seeing the Panini sticker book be released.
If you’re interested, there are 680 stickers. Yes, 680 stickers. If your kids suddenly ask you for an increase in their pocket money, that will probably explain why.
Panini have even embraced modern technology to create an app top check which stickers you have and don’t have. That takes away most of the fun, threatening to consign the phrase “Got got need” to history.
I’d previously been to Cardiff twice, in 2014 for a World Cup Qualifier between Wales and Northern Ireland, and in 2014 for the European Super Cup Final between Real Madrid and Sevilla.
That game in 2004 was in early September, a lovely sunny day and a totally memorable trip, my first Northern Ireland away game.
It was the second game in the 2006 World Cup Qualifying group, both sides went into it in optimistic mood, after having recent success.
Wales had just lost in the Play-Off for Euro 2004, while Northern Ireland had scored a goal. Success is all relative.
Both countries have a lot in common since then, following up agonisingly failed European campaigns (in Northern Ireland’s case, Euro 2008) by years in the wilderness, before appointing managers in early 2012 (albeit, in totally different circumstances) and reaping the rewards for standing by them after disappointing campaigns in the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers.
The attendance wasn’t as many as the 63,500 that saw Northern Ireland’s last visit to Wales in 2004, but it was higher than the 529 who saw the last meeting between the sides in Dublin in 2011.
It was a, in my opinion, disappointing, 21,855. Disappointing, in that it was Wales last home game before they head to France. I thought it would have been a full house for Wales fans to see them off.
There was some early pressure for Northern Ireland to defend, George Williams whipping in a dangerous cross that had nobody running in on it inside the first minute, and Paddy McNair having to head another dangerous cross away a minute later.
Wales went into this game without the rested Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, Northern Ireland fans taunted their Welsh counterparts throughout the game, singing “Where’s your famous Gareth Bale?”
Northern Ireland’s line-up wasn’t too dissimilar to that which finished the qualifying campaign, a very full strength team. The most notable name on the teamsheet was Conor Washington of QPR being given an international debut.
After surviving the early pressure, Northern Ireland came into the game more. In truth, it wasn’t a good first-half, as both sides returned to their dressing rooms drawing 0-0.
The second-half was a lot better, with Northern Ireland showing more of an attacking threat.
On 59 minutes, Northern Ireland took the lead when Wales couldn’t clear a dangerous cross from Paddy McNair, falling for Craig Cathcart who fired home. That’s two goals in three games for him. Prolific.
Northern Ireland then went for a second, but couldn’t get it, Billy McKay being the man frustrated by last ditch Wales defending.
As the clock ran down, it looked like Northern Ireland would be getting their first win in Cardiff since 1980, until Wales got a late penalty for a foul by Gareth McAuley. Simon Church fired home the resulting spot kick to make it 1-1.
The goal gave Wales a bit of momentum as they looked for a winner, but both countries had to settle for a draw in their first match of what they hope will be a memorable year.