Northern Ireland’s U21s, under the guidance of Ian Baraclough, had a remarkable year.
They chalked up a famous win away in Spain and amassed 20 points in their qualifying group for U21 Euros 2019, narrowly missing out on a play-off place for next year’s finals.
Going in to 2018 with three wins, a draw and one defeat under their belts, the U21s were in confident mood when they met group leaders Spain at Shamrock Park in Portadown back in March.
Featuring several players with La Liga experience in their ranks, the Spanish were expected to stroll it.
However, they were made to battle all the way by Northern Ireland, who were lying in second place in the group at the time.
The U21s produced a brave performance in front of over 2000 spectators. They went down 5-3 but they caused the Spanish problems. Luke Donnelly, with two, and Shayne Lavery were the scorers.
A game against Iceland at Coleraine Showgrounds a few days later represented an opportunity to quickly bounce back from that defeat.
Despite creating plenty of chances the U21s just could not find a way past a resolute Icelandic defence and the game ended in a goalless draw.
Then, in September, Baraclough’s boys produced a memorable performance against the Spanish in Albacete. Two quickfire goals, from Shayne Lavery and Luke Donnelly (penalty), put them in front and despite late Spanish pressure, including a Rafa Mir goal, they never really looked like relinquishing it.
Another great away win was just around the corner – a 1-0 victory in Iceland in October. Daniel Ballard popped up with the winner in the 89thminute.
The final game of the campaign was against Slovakia at home. And there was still an outside chance of a play-off at that stage.
They pulled out all the stops once again and registered a 1-0 win thanks to another penalty from captain Luke Donnelly, however a play-off did not materialise as other results did not go their way.
The qualifying campaign was a superb effort from all involved, and especially from Ian Baraclough, who added the icing to the U21 cake in October when he signed a new two-year contract with the Irish Football Association.