The goal of reaching consecutive European Championship finals was all-consuming for the Northern Ireland senior men’s team towards the end of 2020.
At the start of November it was time for the UEFA Euro 2020 Path B Play-Off Final against Slovakia, who had beaten Republic of Ireland 4-2 on penalties in the other Path B last four game the previous month as Northern Ireland were defeating Bosnia and Herzegovina via penalties.
An extra time strike from substitute Michal Duris was enough to secure a 2-1 victory for the Slovakians in Belfast as they booked their place at next summer’s European Championship finals.
In front of just over 1000 fans at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park the home team created 10 chances to Slovakia’s six during the 120-plus minutes but they could not quite find the cutting edge in front of goal.
The visitors took the lead on 16 minutes when George Saville misdirected a header and Juraj Kucka latched on to the ball before striding forward and finding the net with a low drive.
The equaliser came in the 87th minute. Paddy McNair’s running power took him to the bye-line and his cutback was turned into his own net by Slovakia defender Milan Skriniar.
The game entered extra time and looked to be heading for penalties before Slovakia edged ahead on 110 minutes. A long ball hit Jonny Evans’ buttock and substitute Duris picked up the loose ball before slipping past Evans and netting with a crisp low shot. It proved to be the winner.
Not surprisingly, the players were crestfallen at missing out on another Euros following their exploits at Euro 2016 in France, however they did not have too much time to dwell on the disappointment as two Nations League games still had to be played to complete their 2020 fixtures schedule.
The penultimate game of the Nations League series saw them take on Austria in Vienna. And they conceded two late goals to narrowly lose out 2-1 at the Ernst Happel Stadion.
Baraclough’s boys took the lead through substitute Josh Magennis, however goals from Austrian subs Louis Schaub and Adrian Grbic late on prevented them from claiming what would have been a deserved point.
Northern Ireland, showing eight changes from the side that started against Slovakia in the Euro 2020 play-off final in Belfast, competed well throughout.
Alistair McCann had an excellent debut in the middle of the park and along with Michael Smith, McNair and captain Stuart Dallas he provided a solid shield for the back line. Steven Davis entered the fray late on to win his 124th cap for his country.
Northern Ireland grabbed the lead on 74 minutes. The Austrian defence stood still as substitute Gavin Whyte fed McNair who slipped in Magennis and he drilled the ball past Austrian keeper Pavao Pervan.
Austria equalised six minutes later, however, when Grbic found Schaub inside the six-yard box and he hooked the ball past Michael McGovern.
And they fashioned the winner in the 87th minute. Substitute Marko Arnautovic spun away from marker Tom Flanagan and flicked an inch perfect pass to Grbic who calmly slotted the ball into the net.
It was an encouraging performance from Northern Ireland and it was followed by another one at home to Romania a few days later.
Despite going into the game in the knowledge they had been relegated from League B the team, showing five changes from the Austria match, played well before inviting pressure towards the end of the tie.
Northern Ireland led through a Liam Boyce goal, scored early in the second half, but conceded late on, leaving the final score at one apiece at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.
Boyce steered a header across the face of goal before he opened the scoring on 56 minutes. From a corner McNair picked out Smith as he advanced into the area. His left foot cross found Boyce at the back post and the striker bundled the ball home from close range.
As the game wore on the visitors started to push forward and Bailey Peacock-Farrell produced an excellent save on 76 minutes when he pushed a rasping shot from Ravzin Marin over the bar.
Ethan Galbraith made his first appearance in a competitive match for Northern Ireland when he replaced Smith three minutes later, but within two minutes he was watching Peacock-Farrell pick the ball out of the net.
The Romanian equaliser came at the end of a slick move which eventually saw the ball reach substitute Eric Bicfalvi and he tucked the ball past the Northern Ireland keeper.
Ian Baraclough is still seeking his first win as boss (in regulation time), however he pointed out his side were competitive in six of his first seven games in charge, the only major blip being the hammering meted out by Norway in Belfast.
The better performances augur well for next year’s FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifiers when Northern Ireland will face Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania.
Game one of eight in European Qualifying Group C for the boys in green and white will see them face the Italians, the group’s top seeds, away on Thursday 25 March.
Their second game will be against fourth seeds Bulgaria in Belfast on Wednesday 31 March, while the remainder of the qualifiers are being staged next autumn.