Exactly a year to the day since a victory over Greece secured Northern Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2016, Northern Ireland were back in competitive action at Windsor Park, to face San Marino in a World Cup Qualifier.
This match was the first game to be held at Windsor Park since the redevelopment was completed.
The delay caused by the subsidence of The Kop meant that Northern Ireland’s opening home qualifier would be the first game at the redeveloped venue. The fact that Romania opened the Railway Stand last year having opened the North Stand in 1984 suggested that Germany would be this evening’s opponents having opened the original seated Kop, but FIFA’s fixture algorithm decided otherwise.
What this fixture lacked in glamour, it more than made up for in winnability. Though, we’re Northern Ireland, this is the sort of game we usually drop points in. Or so the cliche goes.
Something changed during Euro 2016 Qualifying, as Northern Ireland stepped up when expected to win against Finland (home), Greece (home) and Faroe Islands (home and away).
Despite that, the memories of two points from four games against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg in 2014 World Cup Qualifying still lingers.
Once you get the taste of something, you want more of it. Having seen their team reach a major finals for the first time in thirty years, Northern Ireland fans got a taste of tournament football, and want to recreate the memories of France in Russia.
The campaign got off to a reasonable start, a 0-0 draw away to Czech Republic being a solid foundation, no pun intended considering most of the pre-match build up focused on construction.
Unsurprisingly, Northern Ireland went straight on the attack. And finished it on the attack. And were on the attack in the moments inbetween.
For all of Northern Ireland’s attacking play, it mostly ended in frustration, the most frustrating when Stuart Dallas couldn’t finish from a Niall McGinn cross.
San Marino even ventured into Northern Ireland’s half, winning a corner and an attacking free-kick, the executions were too poor to trouble Michael McGovern.
The breakthrough came when Josh Magennis was hauled down in the penalty area, the penalty finished, rather appropriately, by Steven Davis, on the anniversary of his double strike against Greece.
There was a sense of frustration amongst the fans that Northern Ireland fans that it was only 1-0 at half-time. Perhaps they were saving all the goals for The Kop?
The task got a lot easier when Mirko Palazzi got sent-off for a foul on Michael McGovern. What was also helping Northern Ireland was the fact that San Marino’s keeper was punching every shot he faced, not always effectively.
Stuart Dallas fired wide from close range while Steven Davis fired over when played through. Conor Washington fired over from a goalkeeping parry.
Despite being dominant, Northern Ireland needed a second goal, just to sure of the points. They found out the hard way against Luxembourg in 2012 when a speculative shot and a lucky deflection turned a deserved win into a frustrating draw.
Josh Magennis thought he had scored the first goal in front of The Kop but it was disallowed for offside. Niall McGinn also had a goal disallowed after a fumble by the San Marino keeper, a decision pundits describe as “the sort of decision goalkeepers get”.
It was left to Kyle Lafferty to be the History Man, who started the game on the bench after not seeing any game time for Norwich this season.
Quite apt, as he scored Northern Ireland’s last goal in front of the old Kop, and flicked home a cross to make it 2-0.
Jamie Ward, for some reason wearing socks that were a different shade of green than the rest of the team, finished home from close range after a Kyle Lafferty flick on to make it 3-0.
In injury time, Steven Davis found enough time and space in the penalty area to flick the ball to Kyle Lafferty to put it into an empty net to make it 4-0. It was the last kick of the game.
It left Northern Ireland 3rd in the group with four points, two behind joint leaders Germany and Azerbaijan, the two sides Northern Ireland face next.
Up next is Germany, before Azerbaijan (November 2016) and Norway (March 2017) visit Windsor Park.
Even if we lose in Germany, those two home games are more than winnable. If we did, ten points from five games would be an excellent return at the halfway stage of the group.
Still a long way to go, so I wouldn’t be checking those Roubles.