NORTHERN IRELAND 0-1 SWITZERLAND 9.11.2017

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.

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NORTHERN IRELAND 1-3 GERMANY 5.10.2017

Usually, when the top seed arrives in Belfast at this stage of a World Cup Qualifying campaign, it is an opportunity to see some famous names and a glamour game to look back on at the end of another miserable campaign. Except, this time, it was a bit different.

Germany arrived at Windsor Park with acht wins out of acht, and would have qualified if they made it neun out of neun. In fact, even eins point would have done.

Northern Ireland knew that a win would put them in contention for automatic qualification in the last game and at worst, secure a Play-Off spot.

Northern Ireland might have already secured 2nd in the group, but not quite a Play-Off spot reserved for one of the eight best runners-up.

I’m old enough to remember when Northern Ireland ere Germany’s bogey team, a five game unbeaten run against them in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, it’s been six successive wins for Germany.

It was a milestone match for Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, his 50th in charge. All he wanted was for his 52nd and 53 to be World Cup Play-Off matches.

Germany started the game dominant in possession, and made the most of it when a poor clearance made it’s way to Sebastian Rudy to fire home from outside the box to put Germany 1-0 up after just siebenundsiebzig seconds to silen …….

Well, no, it didn’t quite silence Windsor Park. Anyone turning up two minutes late might have thought Northern Ireland were kicking off to start the match, although the scoreboard might have given them a clue.

Northern Ireland’s response was immediate, with Gareth McAuley agonisingly unable to get his head on a corner. If he did, it might have just been another legendary goal from him.

Germany responded to Northern Ireland’s response by going in search of a second goal, with Leon Goretzka having a header saved from close range by Michael McGovern while Sandro Wagner.

Wagner had better luck with his next attempt, firing home from the edge of the box to make it 2-0. You could see that the shot was coming once he got the space, the problem was, trying to get close to him.

It didn’t quite silence the Windsor Park crowd, but it was now a lot quieter.

Northern Ireland had a chance to pull a goal back before half-time when a cross found Corry Evans, but he couldn’t get a chance to set himself up for a shot, and when he did, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was able to make himself big.

From the resulting corner, Kyle Lafferty had a free header easily caught by Ter Stegen. If someone had been able to run and and get even the slightest touch, they would surely have scored.

Northern Ireland knew that if they could pull a goal back, they could have a go at a famous comeback win. The problem was, getting that goal. Opportunities to get it were rare.

Conor Washingon had a glorious one in the second-half when created space in the penalty area, and hit the bar with the whole goal to aim at.

You got the feeling that was Northern Ireland’s big moment. They already had two. They weren’t going to get any more.

On 86 minutes, Joshua Kimmich made sure of the drei points for Germany when he fired home from a tight angle to make it 3-0.

Northern Ireland had a late flurry and pulled a goal back to make it 3-1. It was the final act of the game, and only a consolation.

The initial observation, was that it wasn’t as important as his only other Windsor Park goal, but it could be, if Northern Ireland secure a Play-Off on goal difference.

Attention turned to other groups. Scotland beating Slovakia helped Northern Ireland but not so much in terms of second place ranking.

Some fans already dreaming of a Play-Off against Scotland. If it did happen, Annual Leave is tight for me in November, I would have to do an unbelievable amount of begging if the away leg was on any day but the Saturday.

Talking of Scotland, i’m not going there this weekend, as flights to get to Dundee for Linfield’s match against Dundee United are just too expensive.

I’ve done the maths, and a Congo win against Egypt will secure a Play-Off for Northern Ireland. Erm, I think I might have to redo my calculations on that one.

Friday teatime saw the unlikely sight of Northern Ireland and Republic Of Ireland fans coming together to cheer on the same team, Georgia, as they faced Wales.

Wales won 1-0. If they failed to win, Northern Ireland would have secured a Play-Off place.

I can’t see Republic Of Ireland winning in Cardiff and expect to see Wales in the Play-Offs. They would be the team to avoid as they would have so much form and momentum going into it.

That is why Northern Ireland must get a positive result in Norway, to sign off the group on a high and avoid going into two big games on the back of two defeats.

With regards to the Play-Offs and best runners-up, it’s an absolute farce that the final games aren’t all taking place on the same day rather than being staggered across three days.

Norway go into this game on the back of an 8-0 win over San Marino, but that was preceded by a 6-0 defeat against Germany. It’s hard to get a barometer of where they are at.

Getting ahead of schedule, i’ve had a look at the Euro 2020 Qualifiers, which will have Play-Offs in March 2020. Yes, you read that right. What a farce.

Logically, that means the draw will take place in March or April 2020, meaning fans will have less then three months to arrange travel for a tournament that will already be a logistical nightmare due to it taking place all over Europe.

There’s going to be a shitstorm over it. You read it here first.

That can wait, it’s all about Northern Ireland getting a positive result in Norway to secure a Play-Off spot.

They might not even need it if Bosnia fail to beat Belgium. Just imagine a statue of Marouane Fellaini outside Belfast City Hall.

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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.

Photo Album

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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