They might not have went to the World Cup for the first time since 1986, but 2018 was still a year of firsts for Northern Ireland.
The first three games of the year, against South Korea, Panama and Costa Rica, were the first time they met those opponents.
The forth game of the year, against Bosnia-Herzegovina, was also a first meeting, but it was also Northern Ireland’s first ever game in the UEFA Nations League, a new competition devised by UEFA.
UEFA Nonsense League more like.
The spin that we are given, is that this will replace pointless friendlies. And yet, Northern Ireland are just one of many countries playing pointless friendlies on the nights that they are not involved in UEFA Nations League action.
A simple summary of the competition. Four Leagues, with four groups. Group winners get promoted and bottom team gets relegated, and these placings are used for Euro 2020 rankings.
The highest placed team in each group who doesn’t qualify for Euro 2020 will go into a Play-Off for a place in the finals.
Theoretically, Northern Ireland could lose all Nations League games, all of their Euro 2020 Qualifiers, and go into the Play-Offs because Bosnia and Austria qualified. That is wrong, and an affront to meritocracy.
This is simply an overcomplicated way of giving Azerbaijan a chance of qualifying for Euro 2020.
September 2018 should be the start of Euro 2020 Qualifiers. Top two qualify and third goes into a Play-Off. Just like the good ole days.
Another spin we get given is that it gives smaller or countries of lower standing a better chance of qualifying. Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales were able to qualify for Euro 2016 without any assistance or goalposts being moved.
The winners of each group in League A go into a finals tournament for the trophy outright.
Why not have a finals tournament in Leagues B, C and D? That would make sense to give this “Tournament” more prestige.
Could you imagine winning League One, and then getting told you’re not getting a trophy because only the team that finished top of the Premier League gets one.
The main talking point in the build-up to this game regarding Northern Ireland’s starting eleven would be who would start in goal.
Of the three goalkeepers that went to Euro 2016, Michael McGovern, a month short of his 32nd birthday was the youngest. It was clear that Northern Ireland needed new young goalkeepers breaking through.
One of those, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, was in contention with Trevor Carson and Michael McGovern.
If Northern Ireland were playing a friendly first, and then a Nations League match, it would have given Peacock-Farrell an opportunity to get some more game time before featuring in a competitive match, but he was named as the first choice for this game, which wasn’t that surprising given Leeds start to the season.
This was a first competitive game for Bosnia manager Robert Prosinecki, who is no stranger to Windsor Park, having a mixed record in his two previous visits, scoring in a 2-0 win for Yugoslavia in 1990, but being on the end of a 4-0 defeat as manager of Azerbaijan in 2016.
Inside the first minute, Windsor Park was screaming for a penalty when George Saville was untidily taken down by a Bosnian defender, but no penalty was awarded.
What is it with penalty decisions at the Railway Stand?
Northern Ireland were the better team in the opening minutes, Bosnia couldn’t get the ball off them.
Stuart Dallas curled a shot just wide. Dallas had the beating of his man and Northern Ireland tried to get him on the ball every opportunity they could get. Dallas was forming an effective duo with Jamal Lewis, on his competitive debut, hoping to make the left-back spot his own following the retirement of Chris Brunt.
Bosnia were also racking up the yellow cards, unable to cope with Northern Ireland every time they attacked.
George Saville was one of several Northern Ireland players who would be frustrated when he couldn’t get his leg onto a cross, while Kyle Lafferty had a header go wide. The best attacking moment came when Niall McGinn created space for himself out wide, only to see his shot saved by the Bosnian keeper.
Northern Ireland were made to pay for that on 38 minutes when a poor clearance gave possession to Bosnia, Northern Ireland couldn’t get the ball off them, and a cross from Edin Dzecko in space the left was touched home by Haris Duljevic.
It was an undeserved lead for Bosnia, but a lesson for Northern Ireland of the importance of taking your chances.
Bosnia were now confident, but Northern Ireland were able to make sure no further damage was done, getting into the break to clear their heads and go again.
At the start of the second-half, Northern Ireland didn’t appear to be too downhearted by being 1-0 down, being straight on the attack, with Stuart Dallas forcing Bosnia’s keeper to tip over the bar from inside the six yard box.
It was a scuffed effort, but he really should have scored from that position.
Minutes later, a set piece saw Kyle Lafferty have an effort saved on the line by Bosnia’s keeper. It was looking set to be “One of those days”.
That was further confirmed when a poor header by Craig Cathcart saw Bailey Peacock-Farrell get beaten to the ball. by Elvis Saric, who put the ball into the empty net.
It was neither a glorious moment for Cathcart or Peacock-Farrell. They were caught in a trap and couldn’t get out.
If Saric doesn’t chase after the ball, they get away with it. Such are the fine margins at this level of football.
A few minutes later, Saric was subbed. Elvis has left the pitch.
Northern Ireland were now chasing the game, with Bosnia hitting the post on the break.
Michael O’Neill turned to his subs, with Liam Boyce and Will Grigg coming on for Kyle Lafferty and Conor McLaughlin.
The final sub was Jamie Ward coming on for Niall McGinn. Jordan Jones would have been a better option, or even Gavin Whyte, given his start to the season, in the hope that he might have the same impact that Paul Smyth had against South Korea.
Smyth unfortunately is in the Under 21s due to the misfortune of QPR having a manager who doesn’t rate him, despite their poor start to the season.
Boyce had a low shot saved by Bosnia’s keeper while Saville was denied by a last gasp tackle.
Northern Ireland had eighteen corners throughout the game but never really troubled Bosnia’s keeper, who got booked for timewasting as he took a goal kick, which was utterly pointless.
Due to stoppages, and Bosnia’s keeper getting an injury that was treated with a bottle of water being poured over him, there were six minutes of injury time.
After a series of short corners that came to nothing, far too often Northern Ireland were overlaying, trying to be too clever, much to the frustration of the crowd.
Eventually, one lumped into the box got rewarded when Liam Boyce scuffed the ball across goal for Will Grigg to finish from close range. Finally, a bit of luck for Northern Ireland.
There was still four minutes to go, the crowd roared their team forward for one last push.
An equaliser almost came when a header from Jamal Lewis almost found Will Grigg, who stretched, but just couldn’t get his foot onto it. If he did, he would have scored.
Will Grigg might be on fire, but he doesn’t have Carlton Palmer’s legs. Unfortunately.
The performance was there but the result wasn’t. All is not lost. If you can’t get promoted, don’t get relegated.
If Northern Ireland play like this, they will surely get rewarded.
Frustratingly, they aren’t in Nations League action in midweek, if would have been a perfect opportunity to remedy it and get back on track. They’ll be in friendly action while Bosnia host Austria.
A draw wouldn’t be the worst result but an Austrian win would be ideal, meaning that if Northern Ireland can win in Vienna, this result will have been cancelled out with all three teams level.
That friendly on Tuesday is against Israel.
I’ll be giving it a miss as it’s an underwhelming fixture and a team i’ve already seen before. I’ll be keeping an eye out for competitions and freebies, so I might still be there.
If not, I might go out for a peaceful meal. I haven’t been to McDonald’s in ages. I hear the Kennedy Way branch is decent.