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Sunday 27 Dec 2020
Review of 2020 (pt1): Farewell Michael O’Neill… welcome Ian Baraclough

Northern Ireland’s senior men’s team had a dramatic year in 2020 as they adapted to life during a pandemic, directed their energies towards reaching the Euros and welcomed a new manager.

At the start of the year they were still Michael O’Neill’s team and were due to face Bosnia and Herzegovina away at the end of March in the last four of the Path B play-off route to Euro 2020.

That did not happen in March, nor did the final against the winners of the other Path B semi-final, which paired Slovakia and Republic of Ireland.

Then, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the play-off fixtures were postponed once again in June before eventually being scheduled for the autumn.

Along the way Michael O’Neill stepped down as manager of the national team. Initially he had agreed to stay on for the play-offs after taking the manager’s job at EFL Championship club Stoke City towards the end of 2019.

O’Neill, who was appointed Northern Ireland boss in December 2011, permanently left his role in mid-April. The decision was taken after UEFA rescheduled the Euro play-offs until the autumn. Michael felt it was the right time to step aside and would allow a new manager time to build upon recent successes.

And that new manager, Ian Baraclough, was in post in time for the rescheduled play-offs and the second edition of the UEFA Nations League in the autumn. He was appointed at the end of June.

His first game in charge was away to Romania in a behind closed doors game in League B Group 1 of the Nations League.

And his team needed every ounce of their renowned fighting spirit to secure a point in Romania’s 56,000-capacity National Stadium back in early September. It was Northern Ireland’s first ever point in the competition.

They were down to 10 men for more than 50 minutes - after Josh Magennis was sent off in the 38th minute for a second bookable offence - but still managed to find a way to earn a 1-1 draw.

Gavin Whyte popped up with an equaliser late in the tie after several Romanian attacks had been repelled. Goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell was the hero of the match with a string of great saves, while centre back Daniel Ballard had a fine debut.

Next up in September was a home Nations League tie against Norway. It was a game to forget.

The Norwegians scored for fun to spoil Baraclough’s first home game in charge – and to spoil things for Steven Davis as he won his 119th cap for his country, equalling Pat Jennings’ long-standing caps record.

Norway dominated the behind closed doors encounter, with strikers Erling Braut Haaland and Alexander Sorloth scoring two apiece in a 5-1 win for the Norwegians. 

Northern Ireland, with Jonny Evans, Jamal Lewis and Whyte missing, failed to get to grips with the two strikers for much of the contest, while Norwaycaptain Stefan Johansen and Mathias Normann produced the goods in the engine room.

Paddy McNair scored early on to level things after Mohamed Elyounoussi had opened the scoring, but after that the visitors were in complete control.