NORTHERN IRELAND 2-2 CYPRUS 12.6.2022

Are Northern Ireland ever going to win a game in the UEFA Nations League?

I asked the question three games ago, and the answer remains no.

Republic Of Ireland have even managed to win one, it’s beyond embarrassing now.

A home game against Cyprus represented the best opportunity so far that Northern Ireland will ever have of winning one.

Unless they drop to League D. Surely they would get at least one win there?

Pre-match should have been a clue as to what was ahead.

The weather in Belfast can’t seem to make it’s mind up. You find yourself wearing sun cream and a raincoat at the same time.

I took a gamble. It was dry when I left the house, it was a short walk to Windsor Park so I decided to leave without a coat. I would be under a roof which will cover me if it rains.

Well, it would have been if the rain had fallen down straight, but it was blowing in from an angle and drenching me.

I headed for the back row of the stand and was still getting drenched.

It never rains but it pours. That perfectly sums up where Northern Ireland are at the moment.

If the games against Hungary and Greece were a reminder of glory days of 2016, the build-up to this game saw reminders of glory days that preceded it in 1958, 1982 and 1986 with the death of Billy Bingham, who was involved in all three as a player and then a manager.

In the official publication the IFA produced in the build-up to Spain 82, Bingham said he hoped the team of 1982 would be as fondly remembered in 2006 as the 1958 team were in 1982.

It would be an understatement to say they were, and then some.

When you look at some of the crap that is painted on walls in Belfast, the fact that there is not a single mural of Billy Bingham is an absolute disgrace.

Let’s hope that gets remedied at some point in the future.

It wasn’t World Cup qualification that Northern Ireland were aiming for, but avoiding a second successive relegation in the UEFA Nations League.

Level on points with Cyprus at the bottom of the group, this is not how things were supposed to be going.

The draw could have been kinder. If they had Turkey’s group (Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Lithuania) the promotion party would be as good as underway.

They should at least have been challenging Greece and Kosovo for promotion instead of trying to avoid leaving League C in the opposite direction.

Northern Ireland began with a lot of the ball in Cyprus half, hoping to end a run of three successive 0-0 draws against the side from West Asia.

It soon became obvious that Northern Ireland were a team lacking in confidence and belief.

Sometimes, there would be decent build-up play but it fell apart with the end product.

The best example of this was when Shayne Lavery did a backheel nutmeg to put Paddy McNair in to smash the ball home only for him to take a touch and give a Cyprus defender time to deny him.

If Northern Ireland were a team full of confidence, he would have smashed the ball into the back of the net to make it 1-0.

There was then a second instance of Lavery setting him up for a shot but he missed the opportunity by taking a touch.

Such was Northern Ireland’s desperation for a break, there were three penalty shouts from the crowd.

None of them were penalties, but when nothing is going your way, you’re desperate for anything.

Conor McMenamin got on the end of a cross but couldn’t direct his header goalwards under pressure from a defender.

In the brief glimpses (I don’t have Premier Sports) i’ve had of him in a Northern Ireland shirt, he’s done well.

The first thing he does when he gets the ball is run towards the opposition goal and try to make something happen.

Linfield Academy product, obviously.

As Cyprus lined up a free-kick in a crossing position, it felt inevitable what was going to happen.

And that is what did happen as Andronikos Kakoullis headed home to put Cyprus 1-0 up and stun Windsor Park.

The goal was met by boos, and one person in the South Stand making sarcastic applause.

Northern Ireland did respond, with Steven Davis having a shot tipped over, but it would turn out to be a third successive half where Northern Ireland attacking my new home in the Railway Stand without a goal.

A couple in front of The Kop would be nice.

There wasn’t long to wait in the second-half for a goal. However, it was to come for Cyprus.

A scuffed shot goalwards, after some bad defending, was put into the back of the net by Kakoullis to make it 2-0.

I’m not sure his touch was needed as the ball was going in. There was a hope for an offside from the home support.

The goal was checked by VAR. It would have been helpful if there was an announcement over the tannoy.

It’s not much use putting it up on the scoreboard when those sat in the Railway Stand have their backs to it.

The VAR check didn’t go in Northern Ireland’s favour, and Cyprus were 2-0 up.

League D, here we come.

Shayne Lavery was substituted to the sound of boos by a Kop not particularly impressed by what they were watching.

There was audible dissent from a fanbase who have stuck by managers on worse runs.

It does feel that the tide is turning against Ian Baraclough.

Some people are wise after the event, but let’s not forget he was one of two standout internal candidates when the job was available.

Even if there was a New Manager Bounce, our ambitions are for Euro 2024, not a relegation battle.

Shay Charles had a header blocked and Kyle Laffery stretched to get on the end of a cross but it went over as Northern Ireland huffed and puffed but never looked like scoring.

Then suddenly, a goal did come from Northern Ireland. Appropriately, it came in almost farcical circumstances.

A Cypriot defender did a dummy while trying to shepherd the ball out of play for a goal kick, only to be dispossessed.

Niall McGinn shot straight at the Cypriot keeper.

Before you could bemoan another missed opportunity, the ball fell to Paddy McNair to finish first time to make it 2-1.

Windsor Park had now woken from it’s slumber.

If he had done that in the first-half, he would have been going home with the match ball.

There was still plenty of time for Northern Ireland to win this, as they now started putting Cyprus under pressure to get the two goals they needed.

Niall McGinn had a chance when he got on the end of a cross but fired over when he should have scored.

Eventually, in injury time, Northern Ireland’s pressure was rewarded when Jonny Evans finished from close range to make it 2-2.

The goal was subject to a VAR check. Again, no announcement over the tannoy, with fans just guessing what was going on by the fact that both sets of players were just loitering about on the pitch.

With three minutes of injury time left, there was still time for a winner.

For a brief moment, it looked like it was coming for Cyprus when they went 3-2 up, only for them to be denied by an offside flag.

It would have been typical for how things are going for Northern Ireland at the moment if the goal had stood.

Northern Ireland just about managed to keep themselves out of the Relegation Play-Offs, with potential opponents as things stand being Lithuania, Gibraltar and Belarus.

At least the first two would be decent away games.

With the home games probably being £60 a ticket.

My views on the Nations League have been consistent, it’s a waste of time.

But we have to play the game and use it to our advantage. We are not doing that.

Even though we were top seeds, you would hardly describe Northern Ireland as outright favourites for the group, but they should be doing much better than they are.

In the end, it is now four successive draws against Cyprus.

At least it wasn’t 0-0 like the other three.

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