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.
Are Northern Ireland ever going to win a game in the UEFA Nations League?
I asked the question three games ago, and the answer remains no.
Republic Of Ireland have even managed to win one, it’s beyond embarrassing now.
A home game against Cyprus represented the best opportunity so far that Northern Ireland will ever have of winning one.
Unless they drop to League D. Surely they would get at least one win there?
Pre-match should have been a clue as to what was ahead.
The weather in Belfast can’t seem to make it’s mind up. You find yourself wearing sun cream and a raincoat at the same time.
I took a gamble. It was dry when I left the house, it was a short walk to Windsor Park so I decided to leave without a coat. I would be under a roof which will cover me if it rains.
Well, it would have been if the rain had fallen down straight, but it was blowing in from an angle and drenching me.
I headed for the back row of the stand and was still getting drenched.
It never rains but it pours. That perfectly sums up where Northern Ireland are at the moment.
If the games against Hungary and Greece were a reminder of glory days of 2016, the build-up to this game saw reminders of glory days that preceded it in 1958, 1982 and 1986 with the death of Billy Bingham, who was involved in all three as a player and then a manager.
In the official publication the IFA produced in the build-up to Spain 82, Bingham said he hoped the team of 1982 would be as fondly remembered in 2006 as the 1958 team were in 1982.
It would be an understatement to say they were, and then some.
When you look at some of the crap that is painted on walls in Belfast, the fact that there is not a single mural of Billy Bingham is an absolute disgrace.
Let’s hope that gets remedied at some point in the future.
It wasn’t World Cup qualification that Northern Ireland were aiming for, but avoiding a second successive relegation in the UEFA Nations League.
Level on points with Cyprus at the bottom of the group, this is not how things were supposed to be going.
The draw could have been kinder. If they had Turkey’s group (Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Lithuania) the promotion party would be as good as underway.
They should at least have been challenging Greece and Kosovo for promotion instead of trying to avoid leaving League C in the opposite direction.
Northern Ireland began with a lot of the ball in Cyprus half, hoping to end a run of three successive 0-0 draws against the side from West Asia.
It soon became obvious that Northern Ireland were a team lacking in confidence and belief.
Sometimes, there would be decent build-up play but it fell apart with the end product.
The best example of this was when Shayne Lavery did a backheel nutmeg to put Paddy McNair in to smash the ball home only for him to take a touch and give a Cyprus defender time to deny him.
If Northern Ireland were a team full of confidence, he would have smashed the ball into the back of the net to make it 1-0.
There was then a second instance of Lavery setting him up for a shot but he missed the opportunity by taking a touch.
Such was Northern Ireland’s desperation for a break, there were three penalty shouts from the crowd.
None of them were penalties, but when nothing is going your way, you’re desperate for anything.
Conor McMenamin got on the end of a cross but couldn’t direct his header goalwards under pressure from a defender.
In the brief glimpses (I don’t have Premier Sports) i’ve had of him in a Northern Ireland shirt, he’s done well.
The first thing he does when he gets the ball is run towards the opposition goal and try to make something happen.
Linfield Academy product, obviously.
As Cyprus lined up a free-kick in a crossing position, it felt inevitable what was going to happen.
And that is what did happen as Andronikos Kakoullis headed home to put Cyprus 1-0 up and stun Windsor Park.
The goal was met by boos, and one person in the South Stand making sarcastic applause.
Northern Ireland did respond, with Steven Davis having a shot tipped over, but it would turn out to be a third successive half where Northern Ireland attacking my new home in the Railway Stand without a goal.
A couple in front of The Kop would be nice.
There wasn’t long to wait in the second-half for a goal. However, it was to come for Cyprus.
A scuffed shot goalwards, after some bad defending, was put into the back of the net by Kakoullis to make it 2-0.
I’m not sure his touch was needed as the ball was going in. There was a hope for an offside from the home support.
The goal was checked by VAR. It would have been helpful if there was an announcement over the tannoy.
It’s not much use putting it up on the scoreboard when those sat in the Railway Stand have their backs to it.
The VAR check didn’t go in Northern Ireland’s favour, and Cyprus were 2-0 up.
League D, here we come.
Shayne Lavery was substituted to the sound of boos by a Kop not particularly impressed by what they were watching.
There was audible dissent from a fanbase who have stuck by managers on worse runs.
It does feel that the tide is turning against Ian Baraclough.
Some people are wise after the event, but let’s not forget he was one of two standout internal candidates when the job was available.
Even if there was a New Manager Bounce, our ambitions are for Euro 2024, not a relegation battle.
Shay Charles had a header blocked and Kyle Laffery stretched to get on the end of a cross but it went over as Northern Ireland huffed and puffed but never looked like scoring.
Then suddenly, a goal did come from Northern Ireland. Appropriately, it came in almost farcical circumstances.
A Cypriot defender did a dummy while trying to shepherd the ball out of play for a goal kick, only to be dispossessed.
Niall McGinn shot straight at the Cypriot keeper.
Before you could bemoan another missed opportunity, the ball fell to Paddy McNair to finish first time to make it 2-1.
Windsor Park had now woken from it’s slumber.
If he had done that in the first-half, he would have been going home with the match ball.
There was still plenty of time for Northern Ireland to win this, as they now started putting Cyprus under pressure to get the two goals they needed.
Niall McGinn had a chance when he got on the end of a cross but fired over when he should have scored.
Eventually, in injury time, Northern Ireland’s pressure was rewarded when Jonny Evans finished from close range to make it 2-2.
The goal was subject to a VAR check. Again, no announcement over the tannoy, with fans just guessing what was going on by the fact that both sets of players were just loitering about on the pitch.
With three minutes of injury time left, there was still time for a winner.
For a brief moment, it looked like it was coming for Cyprus when they went 3-2 up, only for them to be denied by an offside flag.
It would have been typical for how things are going for Northern Ireland at the moment if the goal had stood.
Northern Ireland just about managed to keep themselves out of the Relegation Play-Offs, with potential opponents as things stand being Lithuania, Gibraltar and Belarus.
At least the first two would be decent away games.
With the home games probably being £60 a ticket.
My views on the Nations League have been consistent, it’s a waste of time.
But we have to play the game and use it to our advantage. We are not doing that.
Even though we were top seeds, you would hardly describe Northern Ireland as outright favourites for the group, but they should be doing much better than they are.
In the end, it is now four successive draws against Cyprus.
Are Northern Ireland ever going to win a match in the UEFA Nations League?
At the eleventh attempt, we’re still waiting.
Regular readers will know that I believe the Nations League is a waste of time. However, it’s here, and we have to play the game, especially as it leads to Play-Off places and ranking pots.
The 2022-2023 edition is about building momentum ahead of the Euro 2024 Qualifiers, with both sides looking to replicate heroics of past European Championships.
For Northern Ireland, that was qualifying and reaching the Last 16 of Euro 2016.
A bit modest when you compare it to Greece winning it in 2004, and then reaching the Quarter-Final in 2012 as well.
There was a familiar face in the away dugout (well, if you follow English football) in the shape of Gus Poyet, who is now manager of Greece.
That was something that totally bypassed me, as he tries to oversee a change in fortunes in a team that has now gone a decade without reaching a major finals after reaching five out of six beforehand.
Disappointingly, the teams didn’t walk out to Chariots Of Fire. It would have been a lovely tribute to Vangelis.
Greece looked nervous in the beginning of the game, conceding two soft throw-ins inside the first ninety seconds. Something that Northern Ireland were hoping to take advantage of.
They tried, but they couldn’t quite make the most of it. Good build-up play but not enough moments where Greece were hanging on. On a lot of occasions, the final ball was lacking.
An early free-kick looked like it was going to present a headed opportunity for Daniel Ballard, but he waited for the ball to come to him which allowed Greece’s goalkeeper an opportunity to collect the ball in the air.
It is these moments if indecision that can be so costly.
Gavin Whyte then had a shooting opportunity but his low left footed shot was easily saved.
Northern Ireland were not quite on tip, not quite dominant, but they were in the game.
You just felt they needed to score during this period.
They were never going to win the game late or come from behind to win.
There was a curious incident when a free-kick from a central position went just wide of the post.
The keeper wasn’t worried as he watched it go wide.
What was curious was the fact that the ball was perfectly delivered towards the penalty spot, but nobody was attacking the ball, with defenders and attackers being too busy grappling to notice where the ball was.
As the half neared it’s end, the inevitable goal for Greece came when Tasos Bakasetas has space on the edge of the box to fire home low to put Greece 1-0 up.
It wasn’t what Northern Ireland deserved, but that’s where we were.
0-1 at half-time, it also meant I had yet to see Northern Ireland score a goal when attacking my new home in the Railway Stand.
It almost got worse in the final minute of the half, when a quick counter-attack played in Lazaros Rota to shoot from a wide position, his effort going just wide.
Let’s hope The Kop would see some goals in the second-half.
It was Greece who had the first attacking threat of the second-half when a cross went agonisingly across the six yard box with nobody getting on the end of it.
Kyle Lafferty and Niall McGinn were introduced. Both of them would be frustrated before the night was over.
It was McGinn who was frustrated when the ball fell perfectly for him to strike on the edge of the box, but his effort was straight at the keeper.
Also coming on from the bench was Shea Charles, making his debut.
He looked decent, and showed some nice touches.
If you can remember United beating Rangers in the European Cup in 2003, that was the day before he was born.
Sorry for making you all feel old.
As the match neared it’s end, Northern Ireland had one last chance, when Kyle Lafferty lined up a free-kick on the edge of the box.
The execution was perfect, the keeper was beaten. Unfortunately, the ball went just over.
I was at the other end and was prematurely celebrating a goal as the ball hit the top rather than the back of the net.
The minutes were ticking by and time was on Greece’s side.
Despite five minutes on injury time, Northern Ireland just couldn’t get the ball into Greece’s final third to create that one chance.
A lot of the time, it was balls pinged into the box in hope rather than somebody being there to be on the end of it.
It wasn’t a bad performance by Northern Ireland, it was a team lacking in creativity and goals.
When you face a team who are well set up defensively (apart from stray passes in the opening minutes), that task becomes even harder.
Not a great start to 2022, with two defeats and no goals at home to teams they took ten points out of twelve against during qualifying for Euro 2016.
November 2018’s football watching began with a trip to Windsor Park with a trip to Windsor Park to see Linfield scrape a late draw at home to Warrenpoint Town.
It didn’t get much better the following Saturday, as I headed back to Windsor Park to see Linfield lose to Coleraine.
The weekend after, was a double header, the first of which was a first trip to The Brandywell, to see Linfield take on Institute. The next day, I headed to Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Austria in the UEFA Nations League.
The following weekend, it was yet another trip to Windsor Park, but finally a home win, as an Andrew Waterworth hat-trick saw off Cliftonville.
My football watching for the month ended with a midweek trip to Old Trafford to see Manchester United take on BSC Young Boys in the European Cup, my first visit to Old Trafford of the season.
I didn’t have to wait long for some football action in September, with Linfield taking on Ards on the first day of the month. I would have to wait a while for a first goal of the month, as that match finished 0-0.
The goals flew in during my next match, as Linfield beat Warrenpoint 5-0, before taking in Northern Ireland’s first ever UEFA Nations League match, a 2-1 home defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The month ended taking in three further Linfield matches, home wins against Dungannon Swifts and Ballymena United, as well as a draw at Coleraine.