NORTHERN IRELAND HAVE ACTUALLY WON A NATIONS LEAGUE GAME!!!
It might have taken fifteen, ironically Northern Ireland’s greatest food export, matches across four years, but they finally did it.
Let’s face it, that run was embarrassing. Republic of Ireland had even won one, even if it was against Scotland.
But in all seriousness, it was a much needed result as they aimed to avoid a third successive relegation.
It’s fair to say that this campaign has not gone as hoped.
As top seeds in the group, Northern Ireland were expected to challenge for promotion.
It’s not the fact that Greece have won the group, it’s the fact that they haven’t even challenged them. The campaign was a write-off three games in, possibly even after two games.
Cyprus would turn out to be Northern Ireland’s main rivals in the group, rather than Greece.
No offence to Cyprus, but that’s not the company we want to be in.
It’s hard to judge where Kosovo are.
As a new nation, they are having to work their way up from Pot 6.
Definitely not a minnow. A team who can give better teams than Northern Ireland a game, but Northern Ireland would fancy their chances against them.
As long as they don’t repeat the start they made in the 3-2 defeat in the previous meeting.
Kosovo’s Manager, Alain Giresse, played for France when they eliminated Northern Ireland from Spain 82.
If we’re trying to avenge a defeat from three months ago, might as well try to avenge one from 1982 while we’re at it.
The first-half was even, but despite Northern Ireland’s attacking play, I wasn’t getting my hopes up of getting to witness a Northern Ireland goal from my new home in the Railway Stand.
It was Kosovo who had the first chance of the game when a long range shot was parried by Bailey Peacock-Farrell straight to a Kosovo attack, whose weak effort was straight at the keeper.
Peacock-Farrell made a more positive connection when a volley goalwards looked like being headed in, getting there first to punch the ball away.
His mixed evening continued when a poor punch under pressure from a corner fell to a Kosovo attacker who hooked over under pressure.
Kosovo just looked more confident when going forward. They just looked more believable as an attacking threat.
Dion Charles was Northern Ireland’s best attacking threat.
Having been denied by a cynical foul earlier in the game as he seeked to launch a counter-attack, he managed to rampage through Kosovo’s defence, finding himself through on goal, only to see his shot saved when he should have scored.
Even more frustrating for me, I was once again denied the opportunity to witness a Northern Ireland goal in my new home of the Railway Stand.
Just one Northern Ireland goal when attacking the Railway Stand, that is all I ask for.
Somehow, Northern Ireland are a team that doesn’t look like scoring, despite scoring two in two out of their four group games so far going into this game. It’s a strange contradiction.
Charles had another effort denied with a low long range effort from outside the box that was easily saved.
0-0 at half-time, with Northern Ireland holding their own, but it was Kosovo who carried the biggest attacking theat.
In the opening minute of the second-half, it was another Bolton Wanderers player, Conor Bradley (well, on loan from Liverpool) ran onto a pass, cut inside but his low shot was denied by Kosovo’s goalkeeper.
This was another one that could be filed under Should’ve Scored.
Eventually, Northern Ireland made the breakthrough when Dion Charles was played through and fired it home despite Kosovo’s keeper getting a hand on it.
It was too good to be true, he would be denied by an offside flag. Decent finish though.
After a promising start to the second-half where Northern Ireland were playing too well, their failure to take advantage of it made it certain that a Kosovo goal was coming.
That happened when Vedat Muriqi created space for himself and smashed the ball low into the back of the net.
No nonsense, Kosovo were always more believable going forward. It’s about the quality of finishes not the quantity of chances.
It kept up his record of one every two internationals. Oh to have a current Northern Ireland player with that sort of record.
Muriqi was having an impact at both ends of the pitch, heading off the line when it looked like Jonny Evans was certain to score as Northern Ireland looked to respond.
Josh Magennis was next to be denied as his header was tipped onto the top of the crossbar. Yep, looking like one of those nights, or teatimes.
With time running out, the game swung in Northern Ireland’s favour.
Muriqi was through on goal, but his low shot was well saved by Bailey Peacock-Farrell, with the ball falling to a Northern Ireland player.
A quick ball forward saw Shayne Lavery, on as a substitute, through on goal.
Bearing down on goal, he crossed it for Gavin Whyte, another substitute to fire it into the empty net.
Northern Ireland had an equaliser, and ten minutes to win the game.
Just as the last game I attended at Windsor Park, it swung in a single incident where it went from being certain to be 2-0 to being 1-1 in a matter of seconds.
Thankfully, it worked in the favour of the team I was cheering on.
Although, Kosovo almost snuck it late on when Peacock-Farrell had to rush out and make himself big as a Kosovan strike bore down on goal. He really should have scored.
Midway through injury time, as they looked to settle for a draw, Northern Ireland got the winner when a cross from Gavin Whyte was headed home by Josh Magennis.
It was one of those, from my vantage point behind the opposite goal, I knew it was going in as soon as he headed it.
Windsor Park erupted in celebration. It might not have been as iconic as Israel 1981, England 2005, Spain 2006 or Greece 2015, but you can’t turn your nose up at a win.
A first in the Nations League for Northern Ireland. Fifteen games too late in that regard you could say.
With this game kicking off early, it meant that Greece had won the group while warming up for their game
I didn’t watch Cyprus v Greece, but it is obvious to suggest that Greece may have slacked off after learning of their promotion.
Classic Northern Ireland, winning a match turning out to be to their detriment, as Cyrpus remained level on points with them in the battle against relegation.
There would be no slacking off for Greece on Matchday 6, as they defeated Northern Ireland 3-1.
Luckily for Northern Ireland, Kosovo did them a favour by beating Cyprus.
Even more luckily for Northern Ireland, Away Goals Rule being scrapped by UEFA meant Cyprus didn’t pip them to 3rd due to their 2-2 draw at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland getting that, um, coveted position due to their slightly less shit goal difference.
Although, 4th wouldn’t have meant relegation, but a two legged Play-Off against Gibraltar in March 2024 to avoid that fate.
It really should have been League B that Northern Ireland should be challenging for, not challenging to avoid League D.
Especially as the top seeded team in the draw.
If they had finished 2nd to Greece, you would have held your hand up, but they didn’t even challenge Greece. That final day meeting should have been to decide who won the group.
I think the Nations League is a stupid competition, but you have to play the game.
Some countries have benefitted from it, Northern Ireland have used it to make it harder for themselves.
As a side note, I quite like the September International Break being at the end of the month. I hope this becomes a thing going forward.
That may mean September/October being combined into a two week break, or September, October and November all being at the end of the month.
Two weeks after this game, came the draw for Euro 2024. It was relatively generous.
Considering that Northern Ireland were in Pot 5, it could have been an absolute nightmare.
Take Denmark out of the equation, let them run away with the group, there is a second spot up for grabs.
We should be looking to get six points against both Kazakhstan and San Marino, while we should be looking to get at least four points against Finland and Slovenia.
Performances will need to be a lot lot better than what we have seen in the Nations League.
A further two weeks later, came the sacking of Ian Baraclough. It was going that way and there was no way to recover from it.
It’s not the magic solution, if only it was that simple.