If Estonia’s last visit to Windsor Park was one of Northern Ireland’s lowest points in recent years, Belarus only previous visit to South Belfast was one of the highest points.
It was a gloriously warm Friday night in late May 2016. We didn’t know if the heat was because of the sunshine or because of Will Grigg. We were seeing the team off in their last home game before heading to the European Championship in France, we were on an unbeaten run, we were going to win it.
If you hadn’t seen such riches, you could live with being poor.
We loved the experience of going to a major tournament, and all the little spin-offs such as sticker books, send-off home matches and newspaper pull-outs, we want to do it all again in Euro 2020.
It will be tough though, with Northern Ireland in Pot 3 behind two former European Champions and two heavyweights. However, Germany and Holland are two heavyweights trying to rebuild their reputation after humiliating failures in recent years.
However, 3rd place may not be enough for Northern Ireland to secure a Play-Off place thanks to the farce that is the Nations League.
If the group goes to form based on the seedings, Northern Ireland finish 3rd and Belarus 5th, Northern Ireland won’t be guaranteed a Play-Off whole Belarus will be on the basis of winning their group in League D.
There were idiots in our support who kept saying the UEFA Nations League was a great opportunity to help Northern Ireland qualify. How? It is nothing more than a reward for mediocrity.
There will be a 3rd place team who misses out to a team who finishes 5th or 6th in their group. This will blow up in a big way in November.
Northern Ireland would be guaranteed a Play-Off if Bosnia-Herzegovina and Austria qualify automatically. Bosnia-Herzegovina blew a 2-0 lead at home to one of their main rivals, while Austria have lost their opening two games in the weakest group. Useless showers.
Northern Ireland can only help themselves, and they found themselves camped in the Belarus half in the opening minutes of the game, but the best they could offer was a Paddy McNair shot saved by the keeper.
Kyle Lafferty had a shot turned around for a corner, a corner which brought Northern Ireland their opening goal when Jonny Evans found himself free in the box to head home from close range.
Pointless stat, but it was Northern Ireland’s first goal in the first-half of a competitive game since Chris Brunt scored against Czech Republic in 2017, nine games ago.
All the clichés about not giving Belarus something to defend and the floodgates opening for Northern Ireland were soon wiped out within a couple of minutes when a shot from Ihar Stasevich was deflected and looped up and over Bailey Peacock-Farrell. It was like a recreation of Andreas Brehme’s goal against England at the 1990 World Cup.
I was behind the goal it was scored in, and you knew what was going to happen as soon as the ball looped up. Windsor Park fell silent, apart from a small pocket of Belarus fans in the corner of North Stand and Railway Stand.
This was a game that Northern Ireland had to win, and the best way of making that happen looked like it was going to come down the left hand side with the duo of Jamal Lewis and Jordan Jones, where most of Northern Ireland’s play was going to.
Jones looked like he was going to set up a second for Northern Ireland but his cross went agonisingly across the box but nobody was able to get on the end of it.
Paddy McNair had a shot blocked as Northern Ireland’s pressure continued in search of a second goal that would not come.
As each minute passed, it became inevitable that Northern Ireland would turn to their bench.
First up, was Josh Magennis for Niall McGinn, then it was Liam Boyce for Kyle Lafferty.
You might say i’m being biased, but I was hoping that the third sub would be Paul Smyth.
It wasn’t, as Shane Ferguson came on for Jordan Jones. It was a sub that made sense though, as Jones was getting into good position out the left but the final ball was missing. If Ferguson could get into the same position, his left foot could provide a final ball that could be productive for Northern Ireland.
A small section of supporters in the quadrant between The Kop and North Stand began singing “Kop Stand Kop Stand, sing us a song”, to which The Kop responded “Who are ya? Who are ya?
Good point actually, who are they? Are they Kop? Are they North Stand? What stand are they in?
It looked like the winner was never going to come.
With just minutes remaining, the ball fell to Josh Magennis. It was set up for him to shoot but he couldn’t get a clear strike on goal.
He ended up passing it, and within seconds, was on the end of a cross, finding that elusive space to turn the ball home. Windsor Park erupted in celebration.
He doesn’t score many, but when he does, it’s vital. That second goal against Greece, breaking the deadlock on a frustrating night in San Marino.
Even his consolation goal against Germany felt important at the time.
The common consensus, would that this would be enough for Northern Ireland, but it almost wasn’t.
With less than a minute of injury time remaining, Bailey Peacock-Farrell had to save at the feet of a Belarus striker who looked set to score from a few yards out.
Northern Ireland held on and got the win, making it two wins out of two.
They were two games they were expected to win, but they still had to go out there and get the win.
Elsewhere in the group, Germany beat Holland 3-2.
It’s hard what to want when Germany meet Holland. Logically, a draw wouldn’t be bad, but it might not be a bad thing if Germany win both games.
That means that if Northern Ireland win away to Belarus and Estonia, and even if they lose home and away to Germany, they will effectively be in a Play-Off with Holland.
Given the choice, you’d rather be in that situation with Holland than Germany.
Even though Holland and Germany are both trying to rebuild their reputations after humiliating failures in recent years, it is Holland who have had the greater fall, and failure to reach the last two tournaments will still be on their mind until they get over the line in this one.
Due to their involvement in the UEFA Nations League, Holland won’t be playing any qualifiers in June while Northern Ireland play twice. This makes them even more of a must-win set of games than they already are.
If we do, we’ll have a nine point advantage over the Dutch, and put all the pressure on them come September.
For once, the UEFA Nonsense League will be doing Northern Ireland a favour.