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Tuesday 28 Dec 2021
Review of 2021: Northern Ireland senior men’s team (Part 2)

For the two end of season international challenge matches against Malta and Ukraine plus a training camp in Austria, Ian Baraclough called up Chelsea defender Sam McClelland and Liverpool defender Conor Bradley to the senior men’s squad for the first time. 

 Nineteen-year-old McClelland, a regular in Chelsea’s U23s in 2020-21, had previously played for Northern Ireland at U19 and U17 level.

And Bradley (then 17), who had featured for Liverpool’s U23s, U19s and U18s since signing for the Reds in September 2018, captained Northern Ireland Schoolboys (U16) to the Victory Shield in 2018 and had also played for his country’s U17s.

 

Liverpool goalkeeper Liam Hughes (19) retained his place in the squad after being called up to the seniors for the first time for the triple header in March against Italy, USA and Bulgaria.

Regular members of the panel who did not make the end of season tour included captain Steven Davis, vice-captain Jonny Evans and his brother Corry, Conor Washington, Conor McLaughlin, Jamal Lewis, Michael Smith and Trevor Carson.

2021 review: Northern Ireland senior men’s team (Part 1)

The friendly against Malta at the end of May was played at the Wörthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt.

Goals from Jordan Jones, Ali McCann (his first at senior international level) and Gavin Whyte helped Northern Ireland record a comfortable 3-0 win over the Maltese.

 

The international challenge match against Ukraine in Dnipro in early June was a much more difficult assignment.

The Euros-bound home team piled on the pressure for most of the game and scored the only goal after 10 minutes through Oleksandr Zubkov.

Peacock-Farrell made several fine stops, however his team-mates did create some decent chances. Ciaron Brown’s bullet header was superbly pushed away by Ukraine keeper Heorhii Bushchan, while McCann glanced a header wide and Paul Smyth scooped a shot past the post.

 

Bara’s boys were determined to get their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification campaign back on track when the 2021-22 football season began.

Following their defeat away to Italy and goalless home draw against Bulgaria in their opening two encounters in European Qualifying Group C, they were keen to put things right in September.

Several experienced players returned to the fold for a triple header that month that included qualifiers away to Lithuania and home to Switzerland plus a friendly against Estonia away.

Northern Ireland powered to a fine 4-1 win against Lithuania in Vilnius thanks to goals from Daniel Ballard, Shayne Lavery, Conor Washington and Paddy McNair.

Goal number one came 20 minutes in when Ballard steered the ball home from close range for his first senior international goal.

Northern Ireland doubled their lead five minutes after the break when Washington scored from the spot.

The penalty was awarded by French referee Stephanie Frappart when Lithuania midfielder Linas Megelaitis blocked a Michael Smith cross with his hands inside the area.

Lithuania’s response saw defender Rolandas Baravykas’s powerful drive deflected wide for a corner. However, he made no mistake when the ball arrived at his feet again from the corner. He hammered the ball into the top corner from 16 yards to make it 2-1.

Lithuania had a chance to draw level on 64 minutes from the penalty spot, however Peacock-Farrell produced a superb save to deny them.

The spot kick was awarded when McNair collided with Justas Lasickas inside the area after Craig Cathcart was caught on the ball. Following a VAR check the penalty was given.

Arvydas Novikovas stepped up to take it but Peacock-Farrell was equal to his effort, pushing the ball away down to his left.

That huge let-off sparked Northern Ireland into life and they extended their lead four minutes later when Jamal Lewis and Thompson combined down the left and the midfielder drilled in a cross which was smashed into the net by Lavery. And it was also his first senior international goal.

Northern Ireland were awarded another penalty on 80 minutes and it was again scored with some panache, however this time it was McNair who provided the precision finish.

The ref immediately pointed to the spot after Washington slipped the ball to Davis inside the area and the skipper was bundled off the ball by Lithuanian defender Edgaras Uktus.

 

Days later Northern Ireland prepared for their World Cup qualifier against Switzerland with a solid 1-0 victory over Estonia in a low-key friendly in Tallinn in which Niall McGinn captained his country for a second time as he earned his 67th cap.

The highlight of the game was the winning goal scored by substitute Shane Ferguson, who hammered the ball into the top corner from 30 yards.  

 

Ferguson, earning his 50th cap for his country, had been touch and go to play after nursing a foot injury in the run-up to the match. There was no inkling of that though when he blasted the ball home. It was an absolute corker of a goal. 

The final part of the triple header saw Baraclough’s boys take on Switzerland at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. The encounter ended goalless. 

It was a game of few chances in front of almost 16,000 raucous fans.

Peacock-Farrell produced another superb penalty save to keep the scores level just after the half-hour mark.

But there were very few other clearcut chances for either team, just lots of endeavour and some top class defensive work.

Shayne Lavery had Northern Ireland’s best chance, screwing a shot just wide of the post after running at pace at the Swiss defence.

In the 32nd minute, as a Swiss cross from the right drifted aimlessly across a sea of bodies, Michael Smith was adjudged to have shoved Swiss attacker Ruben Vargas inside the area.

But Bailey Peacock-Farrell, for the second qualifier running, was the hero once again when he dived to his right to push out Haris Seferovic’s spot kick.

On 68 minutes Conor Bradley came on for his first Northern Ireland appearance in a competitive game, replacing Michael Smith, while Dion Charles also made his competitive bow, replacing Conor Washington. 

George Saville replaced Thompson on 74 minutes and he was immediately in the thick of it. He had a shot blocked four minutes after coming on and then Bradley had an effort thwarted by the Swiss defence.