In a year of milestones and firsts, Northern Ireland ended 2016 with another first, a first ever meeting against Croatia, meaning that Macedonia, Bosnia, Andorra, Gibraltar, Kazakhstan and Kosovo are now the only UEFA members that Northern Ireland have never played.
It was a game that had been a long time coming. The sides were supposed to meet at Windsor Park in March 1998 in what was Lawrie McMenemy’s first game in charge. That game got scrapped for some reason and Northern Ireland ended up playing against Slovakia instead. Ironically, Northern Ireland wore red and white squares against the Slovaks.
There were rumours of a game in 2009 while Davor Suker, now President of the Croatian FA, hinted at a future friendly when visiting Belfast to present an award to David Healy in 2014, before a meeting finally became a reality.
It was an indication of how far Northern Ireland have come that they can attract opposition of this level to Belfast.
Already two points clear in their World Cup Qualifying group, it would be a major surprise if they didn’t end up in Russia in June 2018, no disrespect to Ukraine, Turkey and Iceland.
Assuming they do, it will be their tenth tournament out of twelve they’ve tried to qualify for. The only ones they’ve missed out on have been when the year ends in 0, so don’t be putting money on them to win Euro 2020.
Despite their qualifying ratio, their record in finals isn’t that great, only reaching the Quarter-Finals once since France 98. Despite that, and the fact they’d be missing stars such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, this would still represent a major test for Northern Ireland to see where they are at.
Northern Ireland were hoping to make it a Croatian double of sorts, as Croatia legend Robert Prosinecki is the manager of Azerbaijan.
Unsurprisingly, Michael O’Neill made some changes for this game, giving starts to Liam Boyce, Alan Mannus and Matthew Lunds. Mannus would be familiar with Mario Mandzukic, who scored in both legs of Dynamo Zagreb’s European Cup tie against Linfield in 2008.
Northern Ireland had the first attacking moment of the game when Josh Magennis cross was fired across goal, with nobody running in to take advantage of it.
It was Croatia who got the first goal when Alan Mannus could hold on to a fierce shot and the ball was eventually scrambled in by Mario Mandzukic, though it looked like a handball by him as it went in.
Northern Ireland held their own but Croatia’s class was there to see, and they made it 2-0 when Duje Cop finished from close range after a corner was flicked on.
The match was a non event, not that surprising for a friendly in mid November. Fans were treated to a spectacular long range strike from Andrej Kramarić, drawing applause from the home fans as well.
Northern Ireland kept going, but their best opportunity came when Kyle Lafftery won possession from a defender, but couldn’t get enough height to lob it over the keeper.
Despite a late flurry, Northern Ireland couldn’t make any of their set pieces count, as they chased a goal to finish off the year.
It finished 3-0. A disappointing end to a year that Northern Ireland got to the knockout stages of the European Championship and made a good start to their World Cup Qualifying group.
This match won’t live long in the memory, but 2016 most certainly will for Northern Ireland supporters.