Northern Ireland’s performance levels during 2018 were by and large good even if the desired result was not always delivered.
Michael O’Neill believes he now has the personnel to play a more expansive game and that was seen during the bulk of the matches this year.
In March the senior men’s international side recorded a fine 2-1 friendly win against the Korean Republic. Kwon Chang-hoon opened the scoring before Northern Ireland levelled through a Kim Min-jae OG. And then QPR forward Paul Smyth marked his senior debut by slotting in a neat winner.
In June Michael O’Neill selected a young squad to tour Central America and the team drew against Panama (0-0) before losing 3-0 to Costa Rica.
It was a tour that gave experience to young players and fulfilled the Northern Ireland manager’s ambition of broadening his panel ahead of Euro 2020 qualifying. Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Conor Hazard, Jordan Thompson and Shayne Lavery all got game time.
The team ultimately had a disappointing UEFA Nations League campaign, although it was a case of performances not tallying with results.
Northern Ireland dominated Bosnia & Herzegovina at home in their inaugural Nations League game in September but ended up losing the game. They created more than 20 chances but only had a consolation Will Grigg goal to cheer about as the Bosnians, with goals from Haris Duljevic and Elvis Saric, edged it 2-1.
The following month, away to Austria and the Bosnians in League B Group 3, Northern Ireland again created plenty of chances but the ball just would not go in. They hit the post four times in two matches. Marko Arnautovic scored the only goal of the game in Vienna, while Edin Dzeko popped up with a brace in Sarajevo.
In November, back at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park, Corry Evans scored against Austria to make it 1-1 but Northern Ireland endured more heartache as the visitors scored a winner deep in added time through a stunning effort from Valentino Lazaro. Xaver Schlager opened the scoring for the visitors.
However, the autumn set of fixtures also saw Michael O’Neill’s side cruise past Israel 3-0 in a September friendly thanks to goals from Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas and Gavin Whyte, who scored with his first touch of the ball after coming on as a sub in what was his first senior appearance.
The expansive game was evident once again in November when the boys in green and white dominated the Republic of Ireland in a goalless draw at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Despite the relegation from the group the Nations League helped to introduce several young players to competitive international football, most notably Jamal Lewis, Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Gavin Whyte, while the Central America tour was also important for blooding youngsters, and they have all undoubtedly helped to bolster Michael O’Neill’s pool of players ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifiers next year.