It was a tale of two 0-0s for Northern Ireland and Austria going into this game, and it suited neither team.
While Northern Ireland were drawing 0-0 in a friendly with the Republic of Ireland on the Thursday before this, the real match that mattered that night was in Vienna, where Austria drew 0-0 with Bosnia-Herzegovina.
That result meant that the Bosnians won the group and got promoted to League A, the point for Austria put them out of reach of Northern Ireland, meaning that instead of this match deciding who would avoid relegation, it would effectively reduce this match to a friendly, now that Northern Ireland were relegated to League C.
Northern Ireland, like myself, have history with Austria. They’ve never met in a friendly, the first meeting coming in the 1982 World Cup, and then in three of the next four European Championship Qualifiers.
Northern Ireland dominated the head to heads in those three campaigns, winning four and drawing one of the six meetings. The three meetings since had seen two Austrian wins and a draw.
My own history with Austria goes back to 1991, and my first Northern Ireland match. Sort of.
I pestered my dad enough the night the two sides met that he eventually agreed to take me down to Windsor Park for the second-half. I didn’t see a goal, as the full-time score remained the same as the half-time score, 2-1 to Northern Ireland.
Fast forward four years, and it was my first proper Northern Ireland match, a 5-3 win in the Qualifiers for Euro 96. One of the goalscorers that night was Michael O’Neill, now Northern Ireland manager.
All else I remember about that game was that Neil Lennon missed a glorious chance to score, as I had to report back to a friend that the goalscoring machine of his Rangers midfield on Championship Manager wasn’t as good a finisher in real life. Also, that it rained non stop that night.
That isn’t my only time seeing Austria, as I saw them on their next visit to Windsor Park, a 3-3 draw in a World Cup Qualifier in 2004.
You have to admire a team that can score three goals against Northern Ireland and fail to win. And then do it again.
I’ve always had a thing for the Austrian team. Their kit always seemed brilliant, and then there was their goalkeeper kit at Italia 90, and of course, the legend that is Toni Polster, and Andy Herzog, who was recently at Windsor Park as manager of Israel.
It was probably apt that someone called Herzog should lead Israel in Belfast.
It was a case of unnecessary use of away kit for Austria, but since they reversed their colours in the 00s, I wasn’t too unhappy to see them wearing white/black/white.
Like Luton Town, I’ll never get used to Austria not wearing white.
Since their last World Cup in 1998, it has hardly been glorious times for Austria, only “Qualifying” for one tournament since – Euro 2016 (they played in Euro 2008 but qualified automatically as co-hosts)
They blitzed their way to France, winning nine out of ten games but ultimately disappointed when they got there, finishing bottom (as second seeds) in a group containing Hungary and Iceland.
Northern Ireland took the opportunity to make some changes to their starting eleven, which included five former Irish League players in the starting eleven.
The one positive about the Nations League has been blooding new players into the team such as Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jamal Lewis, Jordan Jones, Gavin Whyte and George Saville into the team, as well as Liam Boyce getting an extended run of games.
There are a lot of players in the Northern Ireland squad in their 30s. Our youngest keeper at Euro 2016 was 32. Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Michael Smith, Craig Cathcart, Steven Davis, Niall McGinn, Kyle Lafferty and Jamie Ward will all be in their 30s by the time the Euro 2020 Qualifiers come around. Two of them will be approaching 40.
Chris Brunt and Chris Baird’s international careers are over and it’s highly unlikely that Roy Carroll will ever play for Northern Ireland again.
A rebuild will be needed over the coming years. We would be left behind if we didn’t have young players coming through.
It would have been nice if Bobby Burns and Paul Smyth were involved, having got call-ups for this game, and added the Irish League alumni in the matchday squad by three by joining Gavin Whyte on the bench.
After a slow start, Northern Ireland had the first chance of the game when Corry Evans had a shot deflect over the bar. Later, brother Jonny looked to have missed an opportunity to score when a flick on fell to him, but he was judged offside.
There was one moment that summed up Northern Ireland’s overplay. They had a corner on the left, and Steven Davis ran half the length of the pitch for a short corner. An Austrian tracked him as it was so obvious, and when the ball was in play, the attack died quickly, much to the crowd’s frustration. All the defenders were up, the ball had to be whipped in.
Austria had a few opportunities, but nothing to worry Trevor Carson, as Northern Ireland finished the half with a Niall McGinn free-kick going just wide.
At the start of the second-half, Austria took the lead when Xaver Schlager scored. Oh no, here we go again.
But, Northern Ireland dusted themselves down and recovered, and got an equaliser when a shot from Corry Evans deflected in. Finally, a stroke of luck.
Northern Ireland now sensed they could win the game, with Geroge Saville hitting a shot just wide.
Kyle Lafferty and Gavin Whyte came on for Liam Boyce and Niall McGinn as they chased the winner.
As they did so in stoppage time, an Austrian counter attack saw Valentino Lozaro curl a winner five seconds over the allotted two minutes of injury time. The same old story.
Even though the Nations League has been a success overall doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. We should be starting straight into Qualifiers in the September after a World Cup.
It’s fair to say, Northern Ireland’s first experience of this competition hasn’t been a good one. Relegation is a setback, but not a disaster. We can recover from this. The ultimate goal is Euro 2020.
The main positives have been new players being able to be brought into the team. Hopefully, we’ve used up all our bad luck. We lost four games and didn’t deserve to lose any of them. Keep performing like this, and we will get our rewards.
The Finals will be held in Portugal. I doubt i’ll be going as the only direct flights to Portugal from Northern Ireland is to Faro, nowhere near the two host cities.
If UEFA want to give this tournament more prestige, why not have a Finals tournament for Leagues B, C and D with a trophy on offer? I doubt Sweden, Denmark, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine would turn their noses up at hosting and/or winning an international competition.
Attention now turns to the Euro 2020 draw in Dublin on December 3rd. From Pot 1, England would be a very handy trip (Remember, from March 2019, we’ll be able to travel fuck all anywhere because of you know what) but there’s nobody you’d ideally take from a football point of view.
Pot 2, Wales for the trip, but Iceland, Russia and Ukraine look the most beatable.,
Pot 4, Lithuania or Georgia.
Pot 5, Gibraltar, Faroe Islands or Moldova.
Pot 6, if we are in a six team group, all of them should be beaten.
No tournament was always going to make it hard to assess 2018 for Northern Ireland. In terms of PWDL, it was disappointing, but you get the feeling that 2018 will be viewed by how the results in 2019 go.
It appears there is nothing to stop Northern Ireland facing Austria or Bosnia-Herzegovina again. If both of them qualify automatically, we automatically go into the Play-Offs.
Here’s a scenario. Northern Ireland are in a group with Austria or Bosnia-Herzegovina. The team not in a group with Northern Ireland qualify from their group. It’s Matchday 10 and Austria or Bosnia-Herzegovina arrive at Windsor Park needing a draw or a win to secure 2nd place against a Northern Ireland team languishing in 4th or 5th with no chance of 2nd.
Theoretically, Northern Ireland will benefit from losing a match.
This could happen in any group of Euro 2020 with any team that got relegated in the UEFA Nations League.
I think i’ve spotted a flaw in the UEFA Nations League format.
Hopefully, this time next year, we’ll all be celebrating automatic qualification without the need for Play-Offs.