Northern Ireland’s Under-21s had a frustrating year in which their performances often merited more points than they managed to accrue.
When Ian Baraclough moved on from the U21s during the summer to take over the senior team, his former U21s assistant Andy Crosby was handed the task of steering the side through their remaining U21 Euro 2021 qualifiers.
At the time Crosby took the reins they had three points under their belts from five qualifiers, having managed three draws and suffered defeats away to Denmark U21s and Romania U21s. They added a further six points from Crosby’s five games in charge – and arguably should have added more.
In September the U21s registered their first win in U21 Euro 2021 qualifying with a deserved 2-0 win away to Malta – a year after drawing 0-0 with the Maltese at home.
Crosby tasted victory in his first game at the helm thanks to goals from Linfield defender Ross Larkin and Derry City striker David Parkhouse.
Debutant Larkin scored the opener and Parkhouse added the second in the behind-closed-doors match at the Centenary Stadium in Ta’ Qali.
The boys in green and white took the lead just before the hour mark. Midfielder Ethan Galbraith fired in a free-kick which defender Eoin Toal headed against the post and Larkin was on hand to steer the rebound into the net.
Not long after they grabbed their second. Alistair McCann burst into the area and Malta tried to clear, however the ball fell to Parkhouse and his low shot nestled in the back of the net. It was a fine finish.
Next up for the U21s was a home game in September against high-flying Denmark, who would go on to top Group 8.
Northern Ireland had lost 2-1 to the Danes the previous autumn and they found them to be tough opponents once again, however they competed well at Ballymena Showgrounds.
The strong, powerful Danish side made most of the running in the first half of the Group 8 clash – it was played behind closed doors due to Covid restrictions - but Northern Ireland were much better after the break and were unlucky not to secure a point.
A second half penalty from Andreas Olsen, who plays for Bologna in Serie A, was enough to seal a 1-0 victory for the Danes.
In October they had two further home games, with Ballymena Showgrounds once again the venue.
In the first game they took on Finland, whom they had held to a 1-1 draw in September 2019, and it was a game they should arguably have won.
The same could be said of the reverse fixture. The U21s looked to be cruising at one stage but the Finns ran out 3-2 winners.
Northern Ireland were without regular forwards David Parkhouse and Shayne Lavery due to injury but Paul O’Neill picked up the baton of being the main striker with aplomb.
The boys in green and white, who were also without midfielder Ethan Galbraith, were the better team in the first half, however the Finns had the better of it after the break and produced some good finishes to secure the win in the behind closed doors U21 Euro 2021 qualifier.
O’Neill opened the scoring on 23 minutes when he got on the end of a slick move. Jake Dunwoody fed Nathan Kerr and his delivery across the face of goal was neatly tucked away by O’Neill from six yards.
Northern Ireland created several chances before the Finns equalised just before the break, Timo Stavitski shaking off his marker and slotting the ball past keeper Conor Hazard.
Finland had a couple of chances before O’Neill grabbed his second of the game in the 59th minute. Dunwoody fed Danny Amos and his whipped cross was tucked into the net by the striker.
Minutes later substitute Lee Bonis shot wide before the Finns levelled the scores through Mikael Soisalo in the 62nd minute.
The Finns grabbed the winner when Soisalo found Naatan Skytta and he slammed the ball past Hazard.
By contrast the U21s sparkled in Ballymena a few days later when they came up against Ukraine. A superb overhead kick from Paul O’Neill fired them to a fine 1-0 victory.
Andy Crosby’s team were the underdogs going in to the qualifier at the Showgrounds, however they more than matched the Ukrainians and deserved the win.
O’Neill produced his piece of magic on 61 minutes when he latched on to a Ciaron Brown punt towards the six-yard area.
Northern Ireland’s U21 Euro 2021 qualification campaign ended with a defeat against Ukraine in the reverse fixture in November.
Crosby’s team battled well in snowy, chilly conditions for nearly 70 minutes before conceding three goals within seven minutes at the Kolos Arena in Kovalivka.
The U21s were aiming to finish on a high in their group but the Ukrainians, who made several changes from the side that lost 1-0 in Ballymena the previous month, were more creative and more clinical.
Nine group winners and five best runners-up (including Denmark and Romania from Northern Ireland’s group) have now joined hosts Hungary and Slovenia for a group stage of four groups of four from 24 to 31 March next year.
The four group winners and four runners-up will then qualify for the final tournament which will be played as a straight knockout final eight, with quarter-finals and semi-finals in Hungary and Slovenia and the U21 Euro 2021 final in Ljubljana, from 31 May to 6 June.