It was the night Belfast had been waiting for since the 1980s. It was the hottest ticket in town. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a ticket to see Bananarama at The Odyssey, so I had to make do with Northern Ireland’s World Cup Play-Off First Leg against Switzerland, as Michael O’Neill’s side aimed to avoid 2018 being a Cruel Summer.
When the draw was being done, everyone wanted to avoid Italy. Those that believe in omens will have wanted Italy, due to the fact that the only time they failed to qualify for the World Cup, it was Northern Ireland who eliminated them. Realistically, when the draw was done back in the summer of 2015, the Runner-Up of the group containing Spain and Italy was the one to avoid.
That didn’t mean that any of the three other teams would be easy. Switzerland can call on players from Juventus, AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Benfica. They are clearly a decent team.
There were nine groups in Europe, Switzerland’s tally of 27 points out of 30 would have been good enough to win five of them.
Their group was realistically a shoot-out between them and Portugal, with 2-0 wins for the home team, Portugal beating Switzerland in the final group game, and Portugal going through on goal difference.
Switzerland had fallen into the Play-Offs, while Northern Ireland had been aiming and preparing for them as soon as the draw was done in the Summer of 2015, even though they could have been in the race for automatic qualification if they had beaten Germany.
Northern Ireland were hoping this would give them an advantage.
The teams walked out, with Northern Ireland fans showing Love In The First Degree for their side. They were led out by Steven Davis, winning his 100th cap.
Davis won his 1st cap in a Friendly at home to Canada in 2005. Northern Ireland lost 1-0. Canada played 70 minutes with ten men. That was where we were at. It wasn’t even Northern Ireland’s worst result this century, and that’s Really Saying Something.
When he left the pitch that night, I doubt he would have imagined he would win 99 more caps, and lead his side out in a World Cup Play-Off.
Both sides have a bit of previous in World Cup Qualifying, being in the same group for the 1966 tournament. Both games were home wins, 1-0 for Northern Ireland and 2-1 for Switzerland. That combination of results would be enough for Northern Ireland to qualify for Russia.
I was there the last time Switzerland visited Windsor Park, a 1-0 win for Northern Ireland in a Friendly in 1998 with a goal from Darren Patterson.
That night, it was two wins out of two under new manager Lawrie McMenemy. We all thought we were on our way to better things. It was Aaron Hughes first two games for Northern Ireland. The teenager from Newcastle United must have thought international football was easy.
Hughes has seen a lot in almost 20 years as an international footballer, but he would be seeing this from the sidelines, as he was ruled out through injury.
The last time Northern Ireland faced Switzerland was in a friendly in 2004 which finished 0-0. It was a forgettable game, except for Chris Brunt, who made his international debut that night. When he left the pitch that night ……
It was another player on the left hand side for Northern Ireland, Stuart Dallas, who was involved in the first main talking point of the game, when he was fouled by Fabian Schar. It was dangerous, reckless and nowhere near the ball. The referee only awarded a yellow card. It should have been a red card.
On 24 minutes, it’s a red card. On 34 minutes, it’s a red card. 4 minutes in, the referee bottled it, afraid of putting himself under pressure and in the spotlight, so he went for the easy decision, and the wrong one. He bottled it.
For the first time in a long time, Northern Ireland looked nervous.
Switzerland, by contrast, were comfortable on the ball. Xherdan Shaqiri was the focal point of Switzerland’s attacks, getting the ball Wherever Whenever he wanted.
Granit Xhaka had Switzerland’s first attempt on goal, firing just over from the edge of the box.
There were similarities with the Linfield v Celtic match in July, with the away team having all of the possession.
Unlike Linfield, Northern Ireland were able to hold out for the first 20 minutes. If they didn’t, it looked like being a longer evening than it already was.
Switzerland’s first chance came when Haris Seferovic got a foot on a cross from Shaqiri.
I was behind the goal and thought it was going in. It was going in, but Michael McGovern got a hand on it. He always gets a hand on it. We were all thankful that he did.
Despite all their possession, it took a lump upfield and a stretched leg to have an attempt on goal. A case of It Ain’t What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It, and it almost brought results.
Northern Ireland finished the half strongly, having pressure on Switzerland’s goal. If they were going to make the most of a set piece, they would have to be clever about it, due to the referee being fussy about any physical contact in aerial tussles.
Having survived the first-half, Northern Ireland couldn’t relax in the second, with Shaqiri narrowly curling a shot wide less than 30 seconds into the half.
A dangerous cross saw Seferovic unable to get a leg on it as he did in the first-half. If he did, he would have scored.
The pressure continued, it looked like it was only a matter of time before Switzerland scored.
It came just before the hour, in controversial fashion, when a shot hit Corry Evans on the shoulder with his back to goal. A penalty was awarded.
I didn’t get a clear view at the game. Firstly, because I was at the other end, and secondly, because some manchild in front of me were waving flags that were left on seats prior to kick-off. Seriously, why do we give these people toys to play with? It’s not Eurovision for crying out loud.
And don’t even start me on people who spend the match passing beach balls around.
Just like fans of Martina Hingis, we were all desperate to see a Swiss Miss. We were to be disappointed as Ricardo Rodriguez put Switzerland 1-0 up.
Switzerland had been given a massive Help.
Northern Ireland had a late flurry when Josh Magennis headed wide from a free-kick. He should have been hitting the target from there. If he did, he would have scored.
Chris Brunt had a free-kick from outside the box just go wide.
There was then a penalty box scramble where a Northern Ireland player couldn’t get a clear shooting position. They couldn’t even get enough space to even speculatively toepoke it towards goal.
Switzerland held out for the 1-0 win. Disappointing. Northern Ireland are up against it but not out of it.
99.99999% of winning scorelines will be good enough in Basle. The only one that won’t sent them through is 1-0, but it won’t put them out.
We’ll have to get a performance like those done by Billy Bingham’s sides in the 1980s.
There was an advert around that time for IDB, the forerunner for Invest NI.
The words of that advert are apt, over 30 years on.
So come on Northern Ireland, come on. There’s a whole lot of work to be done. You can make it in the end, with a little help from your friends. So come on Northern Ireland, come on.