World Cup preparation began on Saturday at Windsor Park. Unfortunately, it was for South Korea and not Northern Ireland.
Could you imagine if Northern Ireland had qualified? All that joy, only to see it taken away as the DUP try to withdraw us from the competition to sock it to Vladimir Putin.
Don’t even try to argue with me, that is exactly the sort of dumbfuck thing they would try to do.
They won’t be going to the World Cup, but Northern Ireland fans will be getting new experiences this year, as their first four opponents of 2018 (South Korea, Panama, Costa Rica, Bosnia and Herzegovina) are teams they’ve never faced before.
Games against Israel, Austria and Republic of Ireland towards the end of the year ruin that ambiance.
For me, it was the first time i’ve seen a truly properly Asian team in the flesh.
It was also a first for Trevor Carson and Jamal Lewis, both making their international debut. A bit surprising in the case of Carson. He’s been playing regularly at club level for a long time, i’d assumed he’d have had a cap by now.
It was also a first start for Jordan Jones, while Paul Smyth was on the bench, looking to make his debut.
It was also a first outing for the new Northern Ireland away kit (I know, reported to the Kit Police). I’m not sure what colour it is, the closest is sky blue, but it looks nothing like Uruguay, Manchester City, Napoli or Ballymena United. It’s actually a nice kit.
The only other times I can think of Northern Ireland not wearing green at Windsor Park is a friendly against Israel in 2009 (Again, to promote a new away kit), a friendly v Spain in 2002 (not sure why) and a European Championship Qualifier v Republic of Ireland in 1979 (For some reason, the home team wore their away kit in both games)
South Korea were straight on the attack, a ball played across the penalty area causing a lot of concern for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland replied with a run from Jordan Jones, before South Korea took the lead after 6 minutes when Kwon Chang Hoon was played through and finished under Carson.
South Korea already had the better of the play and a goal to show for it. It looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland managed to hand on in there, having a few attacks of their own, one of which resulted in a disallowed goal.
On 18 minutes, Aaron Hughes left the pitch through injury, the day before the 20th anniversary of his Northern Ireland debut. Those numbers were purely coincidental, this wasn’t a stage managed departure.
Within minutes, Northern Ireland were level. They had a free-kick in a shooting position, to the right of the edge of the penalty area. Everyone expected a shot, but a low pass to Jamie Ward, who made a run, and his low cross was diverted into his own net by Kim Min Jae.
Both sides had chances in an even game. Trevor Carson doing his cause no harm for future contention.
Naturally, substitutions disrupted the flow of the second-half, with Liam Boyce, Conor Washington and Craig Cathcart entering the pitch.
With ten minutes to go, the substitution I personally had waited for.
Alas, it wasn’t Smyth and Jones down the wings, it was Smyth for Jones.
It wasn’t surprising that Paul Smyth’s introduction was relatively late in the game, with this game being sandwiched inbetween two Under 21 games. He was never going to get more than ten minutes. It was still enough time for him to show what he can do.
With just a few minutes remaining, a loose ball fell to him, and with one touch, he took two South Korean defenders out of the game and gave himself enough room to fire home low.
It was all about the first touch.
Northern Ireland fans had a new hero. It’s a bit like when your favourite band becomes big. Oh, you’re only noticing how good he is now?
Northern Ireland held on to get their first win in four games. It wouldn’t have been a cause for concern if they didn’t win this match, but it’s still nice to end a winless run.
Those four games saw Northern Ireland fail to score. I can still remember that run between 2002 and 2004. Still a long way to go to equal that run, but good to put that to bed.
2018 was off to a winning start for Northern Ireland. It won’t be a year that will see them head to Russia, but hopefully, the groundwork will be put in place for a visit to any one of thirteen European countries in the Summer of 2020.