PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : MARCH

I had to wait a while for March’s football watching, but it wasn’t really worth the wait as Linfield slumped to a League defeat at Glenavon then lost the County Antrim Shield Final to Crusaders.

Thankfully, the month got a bit better when Linfield defeated Institute 2-0 at Windsor Park.

The month ended with a flurry of games, three in four days, with Linfield’s trip to Dungannon Swifts being sandwiched inbetween Northern Ireland’s opening two Euro 2020 Qualifiers, both at home, against Estonia and Belarus.

Glenavon v Linfield

County Antrim Shield Final

County Antrim Shield Final Photo Album

Linfield v Institute

Northern Ireland v Estonia

Northern Ireland v Estonia Photo Album

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Belarus

Northern Ireland v Belarus Photo Album

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NORTHERN IRELAND 2-0 ESTONIA 21.3.2019

The last time Estonia visited Windsor Park, it was one of Northern Ireland’s lowest points in recent history.

It was October 2011, nearing the end of Nigel Worthington’s second full campaign as manager, both of which saw group favourites (Czech Republic/Poland in 2010, and Serbia in 2012) fail to qualify and minnows take advantage of it, but we weren’t the minnows taking advantage.

If Slovenia can reach a World Cup, why can’t we? If Estonia can reach a European Championship Play-Off, why can’t we?

It was grim, we couldn’t win a game, it felt like we would never win another game, and nobody wanted to play for us.

Unsurprisingly, Nigel Worthington’s time as manager was up, a new man was needed to take us forward.

That man, was Michael O’Neill, but it wasn’t instant. A poor qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup saw Northern Ireland be in Pot five for the expanded Euro 2016.

Suddenly, it all clicked, Northern Ireland won their group and went to France. They almost went to Russia. Now, they were wanting to head to, um, any one of thirteen countries co-hosting Euro 2020, for their second successive European Championship.

It would be tough though, as Northern Ireland, now in Pot three for Euro 2020, found themselves in a group with Germany and Holland.

Oh well, but even if we finish third, we’ll have a shot at the Play-Offs.

Well, no, that’s not guaranteed, thanks to the sham that is the UEFA Nations League.

Northern Ireland’s first foray into that competition wasn’t exactly glorious, losing all four games and being relegated. Quite how, I don’t know, Northern Ireland had enough chances to win all four games.

That frustration was worse when you saw Austria’s group – Poland, Latvia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Israel. If Northern Ireland had that group, we’d be very confident of qualifying automatically from that.

Northern Ireland had a chance with just over a minute on the clock, with Niall McGinn dragging a shot just wide, failing to emulate Ivan Sproule scoring an early goal against Estonia at Windsor Park.

Paddy McNair then had Northern Ireland’s first really chance of note when he headed over from close range when he really should have scored. Craig Cathcart had a header easily saved before Jordan Jones dragged a shot just wide, as Northern Ireland went in search of the opening goal they so desperately needed.

If Northern Ireland could get it, they could charge on and win this game comfortably. If Estonia got it, it could be a long night against a team set up to defend, now with something to defend.

The most curious thing about Estonia’s play in the first-half, was their goalkeeper always kicking out wide from goal kicks, usually conceding throws or possession.

All that Estonia could offer as an attacking force in the first-half was a couple of corners that were easily cleared.

If the first-half was a false start, the second literally was as Estonia had to kick off three times before they got it right. That third time was to ironic cheers. Hopefully, Northern Ireland fans would be cheering at some point for real as Estonia are kicking off, this time after a goal.

Northern Ireland began the second-half a lot quicker, outing more pressure on Estonia’s goal. That pressure was rewarded on 55 minutes when an attacking move which saw Northern Ireland seem to always have one more player and were a pass ahead get rewarded when Niall McGinn finish into The Kop.

Despite being 1-0 up, Northern Ireland still needed a second goal just to be sure.

They got a reminder of that when Estonia got in behind Northern Ireland’s defence, only for Bailey Peacock-Farrell to make himself big and deny Henri Anier.

Any nerves that may have been in Windsor Park were soon gone when Goerge Savile won possession (I originally though it was going to get pulled back for a high foot by him) before launching an attack which resulted in him being fouled for a penalty.

Steven Davis made no mistake from the spot to make it 2-0, and secure the Northern Ireland the points.

They could have secured them by a bigger margin, but Josh Magennis, now on as a substitute, enduring a frustrating evening, hitting everything except the back of the net, but he never hid when he got the ball next time. Thankfully, the misses weren’t costly.

With a Play-Off spot being determined by UEFA Nations League placings, 3rd place won’t be enough for Northern Ireland. It would only be enough if Austria and Bosnia qualify automatically.

Austria lost their opening game, but no need to panic, it was against the team who is Pot one in their group, while Bosnia won.

Northern Ireland can only help themselves, they simply had to get twelve points on the board before facing Holland and Germany. They have three of them.

On to Belarus, arriving at Windsor Park three days later.

Photo Album

MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : SHOOT – 22.2.1997

Roy Keane is the cover star of this edition of Shoot from 1997, as Shoot does a feature on the in-form Manchester United player, listing facts about him and comments from team-mates and opponents.

England’s recent World Cup Qualifying defeat to Italy got a double page spread with the headline “IT AIN’T ZOLA YET” – A pun on the Italian goalscorer, Gianfranco Zola.

With failure to reach USA 94 still fresh in the mind, with only one team in the group guaranteed to qualify, there was a serious risk that England might fail to qualify for the 2nd successive World cup.

Despite being level with England with a game in hand, Italy fluffed this lead with 0-0 draws against Poland and Georgia to hand the initiative to England, who qualified by drawing their last group game 0-0 …….. against Italy, of course. Italy also qualified, beating Russia 2-1 in a play-off.

Shoot’s results service begins by focusing on recent internationals for England (v Italy) and Scotland (v Estonia, in a re-arranged game after the infamous abandoned game the previous October) in World Cup Qualifying action, and friendlies for Wales (v Republic Of Ireland) and Northern Ireland (v Belgium)

In Transfer News that now looks silly : Arsenal want to sign Beppe Singori, Blackburn Rovers want Bobby Robson as manager, and Chelsea want to sign Paul Ince.

Meanwhile, Derby County defender Paul McGrath has put his recent upturn in form down to not drinking alcohol any more.

Jamie Redknapp is now a pundit for Shoot, where readers write letters to him. One reader suggests a European football team. Redknapp dismisses this suggestion but champions a Britain football team.