Following the encouraging win against Lithuania, the goalless home draw with Switzerland and the friendly success against Estonia in September, confidence was high going in to the away FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifiers against the Swiss and Bulgaria the following month.
But Ian Baraclough’s preparations for the two games in October were dealt a blow when several players had to withdraw from his squad due to injury. They included Jonny Evans, Trevor Carson, Michael Smith, Ali McCann, Gavin Whyte and Shayne Lavery.
The Northern Ireland boss subsequently called up Liam Hughes, Paul Smyth, Carl Winchester and Ryan McLaughlin as replacements.
In the first of the two games his team lost 2-0 to Switzerland in Geneva. They produced a dogged performance but Switzerland scored at the end of each half - through Steven Zuber and Christian Fassnacht - to secure the victory in the Stade de Geneve.
Northern Ireland played for nearly two-thirds of the match with 10 men after Jamal Lewis was controversially sent off in the first half.
Switzerland had the bulk of the possession and the chances in front of 19,000 Swiss spectators and circa 450 members of the Green and White Army.
Northern Ireland’s best chance fell to Conor Washington. He fashioned a one-on-one with Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer who stood up to his shot and the ball was cleared.
In the 37th minute Lewis, who had been booked earlier in the half for dragging back Breel Embolo, was controversially sent off by Slovakian referee Slavko Vincic. The ref produced a second yellow for time wasting as the wing back was attempting to take a throw-in.
Switzerland opened the scoring deep into added time in the first half. Embolo and Zuber raced forward as a couple of Northern Ireland defenders backpedalled. Embolo got a lucky deflection from an attempted strike and prodded the ball to Zuber who smashed it low past Peacock-Farrell into the corner of the net.
In the second half Peacock-Farrell produced some fine saves, while the Swiss put several efforts wide of the mark.
The winner came in the 91st minute and Embolo was involved once again. He got in behind the white wall and slipped the ball to substitute Fassnacht who swept the ball home.
From Geneva the Northern Ireland squad headed to Sofia for their second European Qualifying Group C encounter against Bulgaria.
Unfortunately they came up short against the Bulgarians and the disappointing 2-1 defeat in the Vasil Levski National Stadium put paid to their slim chances of reaching a World Cup play-off.
As well as taking the lead in the first half Northern Ireland missed some good chances in the opening 45 minutes - and their failure to convert those opportunities ultimately proved costly as the Bulgarians prevailed thanks to two second half goals.
Jordan Thompson, Paddy McNair and Conor Washington all had opportunities before Northern Ireland opened the scoring on 35 minutes. Josh Magennis fired in a low shot which was pushed out by the keeper and Washington nipped in to steer the rebound home. Initially the goal was ruled out for offside, however it stood following a VAR check.
Conor Bradley, making his first start for Northern Ireland, looked assured in the first half and made some intelligent runs.
Bulgaria equalised in the 53rd minute through Todor Nedelev. The midfielder slammed the ball past Peacock-Farrell from 12 yards.
The home side took the lead on 63 minutes thanks to another first class strike from Nedelev. He smashed the ball into the top corner from 16 yards, and it proved to be the winner.
It was a matter of playing for pride and ranking points when the final two qualifiers came around in November. Baraclough insisted the team wanted to finish the campaign on a high – and they did just that.
Although Daniel Ballard missed the home games against Lithuania and Italy due to injury, there was a welcome return for both Jonny Evans and Corry Evans.
And there were two newcomers to the panel: young striker Dale Taylor and goalkeeper Luke Southwood.
In the first game Northern Ireland registered a 1-0 win over Lithuania. They produced some flowing football during the 90-plus minutes, however they did not capitalise on their chances.
Northern Ireland took the lead in the 17th minute through an own goal. Paddy McNair’s corner was headed into his own net by Lithuania defender Benas Satkus.
Magennis and Washington both had chances before that, while Baraclough’s boys had the ball in the net a minute after it. However, the ‘goal’ was ruled out. Ali McCann fired the ball into the bottom corner from just inside the area but Magennis was adjudged to have been in an offside position when the ball was struck.
In the 41st minute Northern Ireland had the ball in the net again, however the ‘goal’ was ruled out once more. McNair whipped in a corner which Magennis headed home from close range, but the ref ruled the striker had fouled Ovidijus Verbickas in the build-up.
Magennis, George Saville and Washington all had good opportunities as Northern Ireland went in search of a second goal.
There was a huge roar for 17-year-old striker Dale Taylor when he came off the subs bench to make his senior debut on 78 minutes, replacing Magennis.
Next up for Northern Ireland was a home encounter against Italy, who needed to win the game to grab an automatic qualification spot for the World Cup finals.
And Northern Ireland finished their World Cup qualification campaign on a high by deservedly holding the European champions to a goalless draw in Belfast.
It was an una grande occasione as Ian Baraclough’s boys produced a superb display of grit, skill and spirit to secure third place in European Qualifying Group C.
Italy had the bulk of possession and chances, however Northern Ireland also produced some good opportunities and thoroughly deserved their point.
The result meant Italy now have to navigate a play-off for a place at FIFA World Cup 2022 after Switzerland defeated Bulgaria in Lucerne to top the group and grab the automatic qualification spot.
The 16,000 sell-out crowd at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park were treated to some bright and polished football from the Italians – and some resolute defensive work from the home side. It was a fascinating contest.
The Italians poured forward but Northern Ireland’s compact midfield and defence chased and harried.
A superb covering tackle from Jonny Evans brought a huge cheer from the crowd as half-time approached.
In the second half Emerson let fly from distance and Peacock-Farrell stretched full length to push the ball around the post.
In the 90th minute Donnarumma fluffed his lines and the ball fell to Washington 35 yards out. He sped towards goal but could only produce a scuffed effort which was eventually cleared off the line by Italy captain Leonardo Bonucci. Close, but not quite close enough.
Northern Ireland’s defensive line held firm in the closing stages - and a great all-round team performance saw Baraclough’s boys hold the team ranked fourth best in the world.
Other big news regarding the senior men’s team came earlier this month when Ian Baraclough, who took over as boss in June 2020 on an initial 18-month contract, put pen to paper on a two-year contract extension.
The deal means he will take charge of the senior men’s team for the UEFA Nations League 2022-23 campaign and the qualifiers for UEFA Euro 2024 – and the contract will be extended again if Northern Ireland qualify for the 2024 European Championship finals in Germany.
And also this month Northern Ireland were in the draw for next year’s UEFA Nations League group stages. They will be facing Greece, Kosovo and either Cyprus or Estonia home and away in June and September in Group 2 of League C.