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.