NORTHERN IRELAND 2-0 CZECH REPUBLIC 4.9.2017

Exactly one year previously, Northern Ireland faced Czech Republic in Prague in their opening World Cup Qualifier. It was a 0-0 draw, a solid foundation to build on.

That night, I was at Ulster Hall to see Squeeze in concert, checking the score on my phone inbetween songs.

Usually at this stage of a World Cup Qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland’s hopes are Up The Junction, but this time was different, fans were already Tempted to make plans for Russia.

Solid foundations are not something Northern Ireland take advantage of. A win in Slovenia and a draw against Italy at the start of Euro 2012 Qualifying were solid foundations, but that campaign turned out to be a disaster.

Those who believe in destiny will have been glad to see Germany and Czech Republic in Northern Ireland’s group. In their former guises of Czechoslovakia and West Germany, they were both in Northern Ireland’s group in the 1958 World Cup Finals.

Those who even tempted fate by thinking of the Play-Offs would have been hoping to avoid a possible meeting with France, who eliminated them in 1958.

Recent meetings didn’t suggest a lot of goals, with the last three meetings between the sides finishing 0-0.

Such a scoreline might not have pleased those who like goals, but it would have been enough for Northern Ireland to secure 2nd place, but not yet a Play-Off place.

The numbers game was simple. Six games since that night in Prague, five more clean sheets, four successive wins, three games to go, two at home and one point was needed.

If they got that point, 2nd place would be secured, but not yet a Play-Off spot.

There are nine groups in Europe and only eight Play-Off places. Someone has to miss out. All nine teams will be ranked on their record against the teams that finish 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th in their group. The team with the worst record would miss out. That would be so typical Northern Ireland to be that 9th team. Every point was vital.

Northern Ireland made a good start to the game, having the first chance when Josh Magennis headed over from a corner. It wasn’t a clear chance, but he was still annoyed with himself, having scored twice on the previous Friday against San Marino.

Czech Republic then had a lot of possession but didn’t do a lot with it.

Stuart Dallas then broke down the left win but his cross went straight to the Czech keeper.

Northern Ireland took the lead on 28 minutes when Oliver Norwood returned a headed clearance back into the penalty area straight into the path of Jonny Evans, who got a slight enough touch to put the ball in. It was his 2nd goal for Northern Ireland, his 1st coming against Poland in 2009.

With goals like that, he could end up getting a move to Man City, or even a big club.

He would have enjoyed ending an 8 year wait, Windsor Park dreamt of ending a 32 year wait.

As half-time approached, his brother Corry wanted to get in on the act, running towards the Czech goal before being brought down.

The free-kick was centrally placed. Right foot, left foot. Hit the target and you’ve got a chance. It was left foot, Chris Brunt, round the wall and beating the keeper at his near post.

Nobody had scored three goals in a competitive game against Northern Ireland since 2013. Nothing from the Czechs so far suggested that was going to change.

The second-half saw Czech Republic have a lot of possession but not do a lot with it. All that Michael McGovern was doing was catching practice.

It wasn’t as if Northern Ireland were sticking men behind the ball. Jonny Evans even found himself in the right wing position during a counter attack.

The final whistle blew and Windsor Park celebrated but not rapturously. It wasn’t job done. It wasn’t close to job done. It was just another smell step on the journey.

The night was made even more enjoyable for me by the lack of smelly tramps around me puffing on fegs and vapes. See, it can be done. Let’s make nights like this more of a regular thing on the pitch and in the stands.

2nd place was secured, as Northern Ireland now sit 2nd out of 9 Runners-Up. They are 5 points clear of 9th place Wales. Barring a Welsh goal spree in their final games, a draw from the last two games will be enough.

It might not even be needed depending on results in other groups.

Never mind 2nd place, we’re still in contention to win the group. Just about. Germany only need one point from their last two games. It’s an absolute credit to Northern Ireland that Germany still haven’t secured qualification despite winning eight games out of eight, considering that Belgium have qualified with seven wins out of eight.

Projected FIFA Rankings suggest that Northern Ireland would be seeded if they reach the Play-Offs. That would mean avoiding Italy and the Runner-Up of the Switzerland/Portugal group.

There would be no easy games but nobody to fear. Nobody who would stand out as being desperate to get. We’ll just have to take what we get and get on with it, much as we have done over the past three years.

You could say the the newly redeveloped Windsor Park has had it’s first night of celebration as an international venue. Let’s hope for another one in November.

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PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : MARCH

March’s football watching began for me at Seaview, watching Linfield put Crusaders out of the Irish Cup.

There was a bit of a wait until my next match of the month as Linfield’s home match against Cliftonville was put back to the Monday night for live TV coverage.

I was back at Windsor Park the following Saturday, as Ards were the visitors.

The month ended with two games in the one weekend – Linfield’s long trip to Ballinamallard, and Norway’s even longer trip to Northern Ireland for a World Cup Qualifier.

Crusaders v Linfield

Linfield v Cliftonville

Linfield v Ards

Ballinamallard United v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Norway

Northern Ireland v Norway Photo Album

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : NOVEMBER

November got off to a dramatic start, as I headed to Mourneview Park to see nine man Linfield come from 2-0 down to get a late draw against Glenavon.

I was back on the road a few days later to Ballymena to see Linfield record a 4-1 in win.

Up next was a trip to Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland record a 4-0 win over Azerbaijan, before continuing Linfield’s road trip with a 4-0 over Dungannon Swifts before a midweek date at Windsor Park for Northern Ireland’s last game of 2016, a 3-0 friendly defeat against Croatia.

I was back at Windsor Park for Linfield’s only home game of the month, a 2-1 defeat to Cliftonville.

The following weekend, I went to see my first and second games at Old Trafford with Jose Mourinho as United manager, doing a double header of games against Feyenoord and West Ham United, with a trip to Bury (via Broadhurst Park) sandwiched inbetween.

As a bonus, I even got pictures of stickers left around Manchester by Feyenoord fans.

Glenavon v Linfield

Ballymena United v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan Photo Album

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Croatia

Northern Ireland v Croatia Photo Album

Linfield v Cliftonville

Manchester United v Feyenoord

Manchester United v Feyenoord Photo Album

Feyenoord Stickers

Bury v Millwall

Bury v Millwall Photo Album

Broadhurst Park

Manchester United v West Ham United

Manchester United v West Ham United Photo Album

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : OCTOBER

October began with a trip to The Oval, to see Linfield play awful but still grind out a 2-1 win.

The following weekend, was a double header. First up, was Northern Ireland v San Marino, the first game a fully redeveloped Windsor Park. After a few hours sleep, I was on an early boat to travel to Dumfries to see Linfield take on Queen of the South in the Scottish Challenge Cup.

It was then back to Windsor Park to see Linfield take on Ballinamallard United before a road trip to Coleraine.

The month ended with a trip to Windsor Park to see Linfield and Crusaders draw 0-0.

Glentoran v Linfield

Northern Ireland v San Marino

Northern Ireland v San Marino Photo Album

Queen of the South v Linfield

Linfield v Ballinamallard United

Coleraine v Linfield

Linfield v Crusaders

NORTHERN IRELAND 2-0 NORWAY 26.3.2017

Michael O’Neill celebrated five years in charge of Northern Ireland over the Christmas/New Year period, and it was a case of going back to where it all started, as Northern Ireland welcomed Norway to Windsor Park, the opponents on his first match in charge.

Northern Ireland fans will have to wait until 2020 if they want to commemorate the anniversary of that match as it took place on Leap Year’s Day. Quite apt, considering the giant leaps Northern Ireland have made since that night.

If Northern Ireland’s start to the group gave fans expectation, their record against Norway would have given them despair, with the Norwegians winning on their last five visits in 1990, 1996, 2001, 2004 and 2012.

Those games were all friendlies. The only competitive meeting saw a win for Northern Ireland in a European Championship Qualifier in 1975.

Norway’s poor start to the campaign has led to a change in manager, with Lars Lagerback, a man who is no stranger to international tournaments, having led Sweden to every tournament between 2000 and 2008, and then Iceland to Euro 2016. He knows how to get the best out of Scandinavian players.

In many ways, the scenario was the same going into the match against Finland in March 2015, with Northern Ireland looking to build on a promising start on a Sunday at home to Scandinavian opposition amidst a lot of expectation.

It wasn’t that long ago, Northern Ireland played Norway and all we wanted was a goal. We got one, and celebrated so much, we didn’t noticed that Norway scored straight from kick-off. We lost 4-1 and nobody cared, we had a goal. Those days are gone. Hopefully, forever.

The only difference from the Finland match was that Delivering Unity Promptly MLAs and MPs weren’t getting outraged and demand that we withdraw from the competition due to the horror of playing a home match in a Sunday. I guess they’ve got more important things to worry about.

The two other games in the group kick-off at 5pm, and the results went as expected – one in Northern Ireland’s favour, and one going against Northern Ireland. Germany got a 4-1 win against Azerbaijan while Czech Republic beat San Marino 6-0.

Germany are looking set to win 10 out of 10 in this group, any team who gets even a draw against them will view it as a bonus point. Hopefully, that will be us in October. Czech Republic’s win went they were breathing down Northern Ireland’s necks.

This match wasn’t a case of The Winner Takes It All, but the loser would be standing small. Three points was very much The Name Of The Game for Northern Ireland.

After just 90 seconds, Northern Ireland got a dream start when Jamie Ward got enough space to turn and fire into the net. It was a shooting position that screamed Take On Me, which is what he did.

Northern Ireland thought they would be Hunting High And Low for a lead, they had it within two minutes.

As a bonus, the smelly tramps who sit a few rows in front of me turned up late and missed it. Bonus.

In all seriousness, how much of an inconsiderate arsehole do you have to be that you can’t even go 45 minutes without a smoke? All this while Stewards steal a living and do fuck all about it.

The game died down after a dramatic start, and it was Norway who came more into it, having an effort which hit the angle of post and bar, scaring The Living Daylights out of the home fans.

Northern Ireland were nervous. We even had the sight of Steven Davis misplacing passes.

Thankfully, normality was soon restored, in some style, as Davis played a defence splitting pass for Conor Washington to finish to put Northern Ireland 2-0 up. From the moment he got the ball, there was only going to be one result.

Northern Ireland still needed a third goal just to be sure, and almost had it early in the second-half when a game of head tennis saw a Norwegian defender head just wide of his own goal, while Jamie Ward cut inside and had a shot blocked.

At the other end, Michael McGovern was forced into a save from a low free-kick.

Thankfully for the journalists in the Press Box having to deal with Headlines and Deadlines, Northern Ireland were able to see the game out in the final minutes and record a 2-0 win.

The result keeps Northern Ireland in 2nd place, five points behind Germany. Tehy are two points above Czech Republic. What separates the two teams is the fact Northern Ireland beat Azerbaijan at home while the Czechs could only draw at home to them. As well as that, they are three points clear of Azerbaijan. The two teams separated by Northern Ireland’s win at Windsor Park last November.

Norway are effectively out of it, but with Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and Azerbaijan all having to visit there, they could have a big say in who finishes 2nd.

Every point in this group is vital.

Not only do Northern Ireland have to finish 2nd, but they have to do so well. The 2nd place with the worst record (against teams in 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th) will be automatically eliminated, with the remaining eight going into four Play-Off ties.

Northern Ireland are three points above Montenegro. In 2010 and 2014, the unlucky team had ten points. Northern Ireland already have seven.

Up next is two away games against Azerbaijan and San Marino before a home match against Czech Republic.

If we get wins from those two away games, it could set a memorable night against the Czechs in September.

There’s still a long way to go before we can start dreaming of Red Square being renamed Green and White Square.

Photo Album

Northern Ireland v Norway 2012

2016 IN PICTURES – NOVEMBER

November 2016 began with an eventful trip to Lurgan to see Linfield recover from being both two goals and two men down against Glenavon to secure an unlikely draw.

It was followed by a busy week. I was out on the road again to see Linfield take on Ballymena, before heading to The Odyssey to see Bastille in concert.

Two days later, I was at Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Azerbaijan, before heading back on the road to see Linfield take on Dungannon Swifts.

I then headed to near the Royal Mail’s office to photograph a new mural of various popculture icons such as David Bowie, Christopher Walken, Kes and Adam Ant.

The following midweek, I was back at Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Croatia in a friendly, before heading back to Windsor Park the following Saturday to see Linfield take on Cliftonville.

November ended with a weekend in Manchester, going to see United take on Feyenoord and West Ham, see Bury take on Millwall via Broadhurst Park, as well as capturing Street Art in Manchester and Salford Quays, and some stickers left by Feyenoord fans around the city.

Those trips to Old Trafford were my first since Jose Mourinho became United manager.

Glenavon v Linfield

Ballymena United v Linfield

Bastille live at The Odyssey

Bastille live at The Odyssey Photo Album

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan Photo Album

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

Down By The Royal Mail II

Down By The Royal Mail II Photo Album

Northern Ireland v Croatia

Northern Ireland v Croatia Photo Album

Linfield v Cliftonville

Manchester Street Art

Manchester Street Art Photo Album

Manchester United v Feyenoord

Manchester United v Feyenoord Photo Album

Salford Quays Street Art

Salford Quays Street Art Photo Album

Feyenoord Stickers

Feyenoord Stickers Photo Album

Bury v Millwall

Bury v Millwall Photo Album

Broadhurst Park

Manchester United v West Ham United

Manchester United v West Ham United Photo Album

2016 IN PICTURES – OCTOBER

October began with a trip to The Oval, to see Linfield take on Glentoran, play awful but grind out a 2-1 win.

The following Saturday, I went to see Northern Ireland take on San Marino, the first game at a fully redeveloped Windsor Park.

I then went home, and got a bit of sleep, before an early morning boat to Dumfries to see Linfield take on Queen of the South in the Scottish Challenge Cup.

The following Saturday, it was back to Windsor Park to see Linfield take on Ballinamallard United.

Two days later, I was Limelight bound to see Feeder in concert.

There were then two frustrating weekends as I was then Coleraine bound the following Saturday to see Linfield held to a frustrating draw, just as they were at home to Crusaders the following Saturday.

The month ended by going to see KT Tunstall in concert at Mandela Hall.

Glentoran v Linfield

Northern Ireland v San Marino

Northern Ireland v San Marino Photo Album

Queen of the South v Linfield

Linfield v Ballinamallard United

Feeder live at The Limelight

Feeder live at The Limelight Photo Album

Coleraine v Linfield

Linfield v Crusaders

KT Tunstall live at Mandela Hall

KT Tunstall live at Mandela Hall Photo Album

NORTHERN IRELAND 4-0 SAN MARINO 8.10.2016

Exactly a year to the day since a victory over Greece secured Northern Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2016, Northern Ireland were back in competitive action at Windsor Park, to face San Marino in a World Cup Qualifier.

This match was the first game to be held at Windsor Park since the redevelopment was completed.

The delay caused by the subsidence of The Kop meant that Northern Ireland’s opening home qualifier would be the first game at the redeveloped venue. The fact that Romania opened the Railway Stand last year having opened the North Stand in 1984 suggested that Germany would be this evening’s opponents having opened the original seated Kop, but FIFA’s fixture algorithm decided otherwise.

What this fixture lacked in glamour, it more than made up for in winnability. Though, we’re Northern Ireland, this is the sort of game we usually drop points in. Or so the cliche goes.

Something changed during Euro 2016 Qualifying, as Northern Ireland stepped up when expected to win against Finland (home), Greece (home) and Faroe Islands (home and away).

Despite that, the memories of two points from four games against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg in 2014 World Cup Qualifying still lingers.

Once you get the taste of something, you want more of it. Having seen their team reach a major finals for the first time in thirty years, Northern Ireland fans got a taste of tournament football, and want to recreate the memories of France in Russia.

The campaign got off to a reasonable start, a 0-0 draw away to Czech Republic being a solid foundation, no pun intended considering most of the pre-match build up focused on construction.

Unsurprisingly, Northern Ireland went straight on the attack. And finished it on the attack. And were on the attack in the moments inbetween.

For all of Northern Ireland’s attacking play, it mostly ended in frustration, the most frustrating when Stuart Dallas couldn’t finish from a Niall McGinn cross.

San Marino even ventured into Northern Ireland’s half, winning a corner and an attacking free-kick, the executions were too poor to trouble Michael McGovern.

The breakthrough came when Josh Magennis was hauled down in the penalty area, the penalty finished, rather appropriately, by Steven Davis, on the anniversary of his double strike against Greece.

There was a sense of frustration amongst the fans that Northern Ireland fans that it was only 1-0 at half-time. Perhaps they were saving all the goals for The Kop?

The task got a lot easier when Mirko Palazzi got sent-off for a foul on Michael McGovern. What was also helping Northern Ireland was the fact that San Marino’s keeper was punching every shot he faced, not always effectively.

Stuart Dallas fired wide from close range while Steven Davis fired over when played through. Conor Washington fired over from a goalkeeping parry.

Despite being dominant, Northern Ireland needed a second goal, just to sure of the points. They found out the hard way against Luxembourg in 2012 when a speculative shot and a lucky deflection turned a deserved win into a frustrating draw.

Josh Magennis thought he had scored the first goal in front of The Kop but it was disallowed for offside. Niall McGinn also had a goal disallowed after a fumble by the San Marino keeper, a decision pundits describe as “the sort of decision goalkeepers get”.

It was left to Kyle Lafferty to be the History Man, who started the game on the bench after not seeing any game time for Norwich this season.

Quite apt, as he scored Northern Ireland’s last goal in front of the old Kop, and flicked home a cross to make it 2-0.

Jamie Ward, for some reason wearing socks that were a different shade of green than the rest of the team, finished home from close range after a Kyle Lafferty flick on to make it 3-0.

In injury time, Steven Davis found enough time and space in the penalty area to flick the ball to Kyle Lafferty to put it into an empty net to make it 4-0. It was the last kick of the game.

It left Northern Ireland 3rd in the group with four points, two behind joint leaders Germany and Azerbaijan, the two sides Northern Ireland face next.

Up next is Germany, before Azerbaijan (November 2016) and Norway (March 2017) visit Windsor Park.

Even if we lose in Germany, those two home games are more than winnable. If we did, ten points from five games would be an excellent return at the halfway stage of the group.

Still a long way to go, so I wouldn’t be checking those Roubles.

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