The first home match of Michael O’Neill’s first spell as Northern Ireland manager was a defeat to a Nordic nation, and things (eventually) got better. You might as well try to stay positive.
It was a defeat that wasn’t terminal, but it leaves Northern Ireland with a lot of work to do, even at this early stage of the campaign. They were already needing this group to become a bloodbath, even more now.
There was already a sign of that in the early kick-off when Kazakhstan secured a shock 3-2 win over Denmark.
Ideally, Denmark run away with the group, San Marino get the wooden spoon, and Northern Ireland being part of four teams battling for that second place. One of those teams getting points against Denmark was not in the plan.
Playing San Marino first was ideal, get eased in and some points on the board early on. If they could get another three, they would pull clear of one of their main rivals and sit top going into the June Double Header.
Northern Ireland had the first big attacking moment of the game when Dion Charles snuck the ball to Jordan Thompson on the byline in the penalty area, but his ball across goal was cleared by a Finland defender. If the ball had fallen to a Northern Ireland player, it would have been 1-0.
Dion Charles would be involved in Northern Ireland’s next moment of frustration, again from another pull back.
Conor Bradley pulled the ball back to him but his first time shot under pressure went well over the bar. If he had hit the target, it would have been 1-0 to Northern Ireland.
Despite Northern Ireland’s positive start, it was Finland who took the lead when a cross found it’s way to Benjamin Kallman, who made no mistake from a few yards out.
The goal stunned Windsor Park. This was not what any of the home fans had in mind when they entered the stadium.
As the first-half neared it’s end, Northern Ireland got that one big chance they craved when Dion Charles was played in behind Finland’s defence, but his first time shot was saved by Finland’s keeper, who made himself big.
Even though Finland’s keeper did well, it was a chance that Charles should have scored.
Northern Ireland had already found out by this point a harsh lesson why you need to make the most of what chances you create. This was extra curricular learning now by this point.
As the half-time whistle blew, it also meant that in my fifth game since moving to the Railway Stand, I had yet to witness a Northern Ireland goal there.
No need to panic though, Northern Ireland had created chances, they needed to start taking them.
They would be attacking The Kop in the second-half, hoping to secure a come from behind win for the second home match in a row.
Northern Ireland made an attacking change in the opening minutes of the second-half, but it was forced through injury, as Josh Magennis came on for Daniel Ballard.
It looked to be a subsitution that would pay near instant dividends when Conor Bradley headed to set up Magennis twelve yards out, but he volleyed over. Another chance gone.
Just after the hour, Windsor Park erupted in celebration when Dion Charles finished from close range after a set piece, but the joy was short lived when the goal was disallowed for handball.
There was a brief moment if hope as the goal went to a check, but the way the evening had been going so far, the only outcome was to be a disallowed goal.
Finland were just as wasteful at the other end, with Robert Ivanov firing over after a free-kick was saved by Peacock-Farrell.
At this late stage, going 2-0 down would have out the game beyond Northern Ireland
You would happily take a point now at this stage.
Even when Finland’s keeper let a cross under his body (think Zubizarreta v Nigeria at France 98) the ball wouldn’t fall Northern Ireland’s way, going out for a corner rather than rolling into the net.
That would be it for Northern Ireland, as Finland held out for a 1-0 win.
Perhaps not that surprising. This fixture has a sense of symmetry about it.
The meetings in qualifying for Mexico 86 and Euro 2000 were all home wins. Finland then won a friendly at Windsor Park before Northern Ireland won a friendly in Finland. A further friendly draw was followed by a win and a draw for Northern Ireland in Euro 2016 Qualifying.
That meant Northern Ireland led the head to heads by one, it just felt inevitable that Finland would level it up during Euro 2024 Qualifying.
It was a defeat that was hard to take as Northern Ireland didn’t deserve to lose. Especially as this is a game that would have been marked as vital to get three points in.
Not just in terms of facing one of the main group rivals, but to have a winning start two games in and lay down a marker to the group rivals, leaving them playing catch-up.
As you watched the final minutes when Finland had men behind the ball, it was hard to see where a Northern Ireland goal was coming from.
Finland weren’t going to make a mistake, and Northern Ireland didn’t have anyone on the pitch who could make something happen. Just getting the ball and making something happen. Scaring the life out of opposition defenders.
You felt that if a Northern Ireland player ran with the ball, they would lose it within seconds.
That made the decision to leave out Paul Smyth even more baffling.
Yes, he plays in League Two, but he’s too good for that League. He’ll be playing at a higher level next season, with or without Leyton Orient.
I know you’ll all cry club bias, but he offers something different, and that is what Northern Ireland needed.
Even at this early stage, the June double header with Denmark and Kazakhstan are massive. We don’t have a Play-Off spot to fall back on. It’s all or nothing. At least four points is an absolute must.
It wasn’t a total write-off of a weekend, as I won a place at a Q and A event at JD Sports the night before with Steven Davis and Stuart Dallas. I even managed to get my Euro 2016 programme signed by them.
Hopefully, in 2031, i’ll be getting my Euro 2024 programme signed by a couple of Northern Ireland players who played in it.
The first weekend of March 2022 saw me visit Carrick to see Linfield win a rearranged game, then the following morning, head up Cavehill.
Then the rest of the month was Linfield matches, against Ballymena United, Crusaders, Dungannon Swifts and Warrenpoint Town.
With the match against Warrenpoint Town being a lunchtime kick-off and the weather being nice, I decided to head to Warrenpoint Beach for some photos. I also headed to Carlingford, but I didn’t get any photos there though.
The month ended with my first Northern Ireland match in over two years, the friendly at home to Hungary.
During my visit to Newcastle to do a spot of Mourne Rambling, my bus headed past Murlough Bay Nature Reserve.
I was curious. I made a point to visit before the end of 2022.
So, here I am, a free Saturday with no football. Why not?
It was easy to get to, just hop on the bus to Newcastle and get off just before Newcastle.
The actual name of the bus stop was Dundrum Spar.
You know you’re in Culchie Territory when the name of the bus stop is the shop you are being dropped outside, as opposed to the name of the street or just a generic “Town Centre”.
From there, it was not too far to reach the entrance of Murlough Bay, of which I would discover that there a number of entrances.
I entered via a pathway which was filled with holes, stones and was very wet.
From there, I continued walking, took a bit of a detour, and ended up wandering about some fields.
I then got back on course and explored some more.
That morning, it was a lovely sunrise, but by the time I got to Murlough, the sky was grey and dull. It felt like I was doing a photoessay in grimness and greyness.
Eventually, and with perfect timing, there was a burst of sunshine just as I approached Murlough Beach, which certainly was a ncie set-up for some photos.
I was also treated to a mini sandstorm which was quite spectacular.
My visit was timebound, one hour in and one hour out, so I only had ten to fifteen minutes on the actual beach.
Despite it being bright and sunny, that was very deceptive as it was cold and windy. Luckily, I was well layered.
Having got the 1.35pm bus home, I was planning to go out on another ramble later that day.
As I had a free afternoon, I was planning to head up Lisnabreeny Hill to get some sunset photos.
My plan was to leave around 4.30pm in order to be there in plenty of time, learning my lesson from my last attempt to capture one in August.
The weather was lovely and perfect shooting conditions all afternoon, then around 4pm, just as I was not far off getting ready to make my departure for around 4.30pm, the weather turned, and torrential rain starting falling from the sky.
Think I might just stay indoors to be honest.
Overall, I would go back, but it would be at the back of my list of walks, but at least it would be on the list.
Although, next time, i’d bypass getting lost in fields for going straight to the beach.
If the bus from Dundrum to Belfast wasn’t so infrequent, I would have been tempted to spend more time on the beach, which gives you the option of stones or sand, walk where you want.
After all that, I probably will return at some point in 2023.
I’m already thinking about the July Holidays, with 12th falling on a Wednesday meaning I can do Wednesday to Thursday, and the Mourne Rambler bus will be running, I could incorporate Silent Valley, Spelga Dam and Murlough Bay into one trip.
Might as well start looking around for adventures in 2023.
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.
Having done the North Down Coastal Path starting at Cultra (cheating, I know), I decided to do the next leg, starting at Helen’s Bay.
I had anticipated that I would have to wait until October or November when I was offloading Annual Leave to get an opportunity to do so.
Instead, I made the most of an unexpected Public Holiday to do this leg.
I had a lie-in and got the train at 9.05am, and then made my way to the starting point at Helen’s Bay Beach.
It seemed that I had underestimated the distance from the Train Station, taking just under twenty minutes.
Although, when I made my way back to the Train Station on my way home, there appeared to be a signed shortcut. Will have to check that out next time.
As a result of it taking so long to get to the starting point, I decided to change my plan for 1 hour and then going back, to 45 minutes out and then going back. Although my curiosity made just over 50 minutes out and then back.
The weather was kind. It was dry, always a good start. It started off dull and then brightened up as I went along.
Helen’s Bay was full of dogs and swimmers, but no dogs swimming.
The noise of the sea, was very calming and soothing. A gentle soundtrack to a gentle walk.
Eventually, I turned back at Stricklands Glen.
I didn’t go into Stricklands Glen, but it has awakened my curiosity.
I’m definitely going to check it out at some point.
A quick internet search suggests that it is only a short walk from Bangor West Train Station.
I sense a plan developing. Now, if Linfield were to draw Ards or Bangor away in the Irish Cup.
Having walked back to Helen’s Bay Train Station, unaware of the train times. They were every half hour so I knew I wouldn’t have long to wait.
A train arrived as I was approaching, which meant I had to run to catch it. Not what I needed after all that walking.
It was an enjoyable day and I was hoping it would be even more enjoyable as I hoped to head to Lisnabreeny Hill for some Sunset photos.
Well, not quite. The skies were dark and dull, so I didn’t bother.
Probably for the best considering how sore my feet were.
Before anyone asks, no, I didn’t see Pierce Brosnan.
I think i’m the only person in Greater Belfast who hasn’t had a photo taken with him, or got a selfie at Craigyhill Bonfire.
It had been a year since I was at North Down Coastal Path, so it was a welcome return.
I had been waiting for the right moment, but every day I want to go, the weather was dull.
Who wants to take photos of a dull sky? That would be a waste of time.
I’d planned to go on The 12th, get out of Belfast and have a bit of a quiet day.
It turned out that the much hyped heatwave didn’t arrive, so it was the bike instead for me.
I was up early enough to get out and back before things start.
Living near a Train Station, I might as well make the most of it.
I decided to try again on the Wednesday, and the weather was on my side.
When you have scenery this beautiful, you might as well capture it at it’s best.
Although, I was planning to go on the Mourne Rambler, but the timetable didn’t suit as i’d be rushing to get back to Belfast for the Linfield v TNS match.
Thankfully, the Linfield match was worth giving up hiking in The Mournes for.
That trip, all being well, will be at the start of August.
I have until the end of August to make the most of the bus being in operation.
After a relative lie-in, I got on the train (City Hospital Train Station was a bit of a mess after the previous day’s festivities. Seriously folks, how much effort does it take?), cheating a wee bit by jumping off at Cultra, two stops down the line from the starting point at Holywood.
There’s not much excitement inbetween the two, so I didn’t miss much.
My plan was to go out for an hour (I arrived there at 9.40am) and see where it takes me before going back. I ended up going out for slightly more than an hour, ended up at a junction where I could have walked up a path that would take me to Crawfordsburn Country Park.
Maybe some other day, as i’m curious to see what it is like.
Having headed out for one hour, it was time to take the one hour journey back to Cultra.
When I went last year, on the way back, I continued my walking into Holywood Town Centre, to do a quick tour of the Charity Shops and have a bit of lunch.
There would be no repeat, as I headed back to Cultra Train Station.
I didn’t have a look at the timetable but I knew that I surely wouldn’t have that long a wait for the next train.
As I arrived at the platform, my train was only two minutes away.
There needs to be a name for the phenomenon of arriving at a train station unaware of the timetable, and your train is only a couple of minutes away, but not close enough to panic, just take a leisurely stroll to the platform and have a short wait.
I had decided to give Holywood a miss as my feet were sore. The sore feet were worth it for such an enjoyable walk.
That meant I missed out on visiting The Cove, as endorsed by Pierce Brosnan, who recently visited it.
I’m usually indifferent on the whole Best Bond Ever debate, but I think I might now be swayed to have a favourite.
Although, if George Lazenby or Timothy Dalton make a visit to Empire Exchange in Manchester, I may have to reconsider that.
So, what are my plans for the coming weeks?
With Linfield having away trips to Newry and Carrick in August, I may be tempted to sneak in visits to Carlingford and Whitehead around those games.
I also intend on doing Cavehill and Lisnabreeny Hill, as well as my day trip on the Mourne Rambler before the football season starts up again.