Northern Ireland’s Under-21 men’s team had a mixed year. They put in some great performances in U21 Euro qualifiers but the results did not always reflect how they played.
Two games - and two defeats - against Malta’s U21s were a case in point. Both home and away Northern Ireland dominated possession and created numerous chances, however the final scorelines suggested otherwise.
At the start of this year Andy Crosby, who was U21s assistant boss when Ian Baraclough was in charge between 2017 and the summer of 2020, continued in an interim role as manager of the team.
Crosby, who was at the helm at the tail end of the previous qualifying campaign, did the groundwork for the qualifiers for the 2023 UEFA European Under-21 Championship, which got under way in the autumn.
Northern Ireland were drawn in Qualifying Group C along with top seeds Spain, Russia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Malta.
Before the qualifiers got under way the U21s had a training camp in Belfast in March followed by a couple of friendlies against Scotland U21s at the C&G Systems Stadium in Dumbarton as part of an end of 2020-21 season training camp based in Scotland in early June.
In the first game striker Dale Taylor, who would go on to make his senior debut this year, made quite an impression. He scored one and tormented the home defence as Northern Ireland ran out 2-1 winners. Barry Baggley was the other Northern Ireland player to grab a goal.
In game two Scotland got revenge. The hosts ran out 3-2 winners in a closely fought encounter.
The boys in green and white twice came from behind, with Ben Wylie and Ryan Waide getting on the scoresheet, however Glenn Middleton’s late penalty for the Scots proved decisive.
Days later Andy Crosby left his role as interim boss to take up a permanent post as assistant manager with EFL League Two side Port Vale.
The following month John Schofield was appointed as Northern Ireland U21s manager.
Schofield, who had been a part-time assistant coach with the U21s for over a year, joined the U21s set-up permanently from EFL Championship side Peterborough United where he was working with the U23s.
Following a successful playing career with the likes of Lincoln City, Doncaster Rovers, Mansfield Town and Hull City, Schofield entered the world of coaching with a spell as head of youth development at Lincoln.
He subsequently had first team coaching roles at Scunthorpe United, Walsall, Cambridge United, Notts County and Doncaster, and he has also been an assistant manager at Cheltenham Town, Gillingham, Scunthorpe and York City.
His first game in charge of Northern Ireland’s U21s, in early September, ended in disappointment. In sweltering conditions at the Ta’Qali Centenary Stadium in Attard they lost 4-1 to Malta.
They created several chances during the game, however they only had a Paddy Lane goal to show for their efforts.
John Schofield enjoyed his first win as U21s boss when his team defeated Slovakia 1-0 at Mourneview Park in Lurgan a few days later.
A penalty from captain Ethan Galbraith was enough for the U21s to take all three points from a rugged encounter played in front of 400 fans.
Although Slovakia had the better of the first half, the home side were on top after the break in balmy conditions at the home of Glenavon.
And their endeavour and fine approach play was rewarded when Galbraith smashed home the penalty nine minutes into the second half.
October was always going to be a tough month for Schofield’s charges. They faced away fixtures against Russia and Spain, the two highest ranked teams in the group.
Against Russia they suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat. Danila Prokhin grabbed the only goal of the game as the U21s produced a battling performance in Khimki, just outside Moscow. A robust Russian team committed 19 fouls during the match compared to just two by the visitors.
Days later Northern Ireland’s Under-21s suffered a 3-0 defeat against high-flying Spain.
Schofield’s side were under the cosh for long spells in Seville, with keeper Ollie Webber a busy man as the Spanish bombarded the visitors’ box. They had 30 goal attempts across the 90-plus minutes.
Spain opened the scoring on 26 minutes. Jack Scott committed a foul which led to a penalty and Sergio Gomez duly stroked it into the net. Six minutes later it was 2-0 when Rodri fed Gomez and the striker slammed the ball past Webber. Abel Ruiz completed the scoring for Spain just before the hour mark.
Despite the defeats in October, Schofield was in confident mood ahead of the home November fixtures against Lithuania and Malta.
All went according to plan against the Lithuanians at Ballymena Showgrounds where the U21s enjoyed a four-goal victory.
Alfie McCalmont found the net twice, once in each half, with the other goals coming through Paul O'Neill and Christopher Conn-Clarke.
That victory lifted Northern Ireland off the bottom of Group C and into fourth place with six points from five matches.
However, in their final match of 2021 the U21s suffered a disappointing 2-0 defeat at home to Malta.
Malta rarely threatened during the 90 minutes at Mourneview Park but they conjured up two goals in the second half to claim all the points.
Northern Ireland, who played two-thirds of the match with 10 men after Trai Hume was controversially dismissed in the first half, created several opportunities, however they simply could not find the back of the net.
In a way it was almost a carbon copy of the U21 Euro 2023 Group C qualifier in Malta in September which the Maltese won 4-1.
That was a game where Malta took the opportunities that came their way, while Northern Ireland didn’t.
And that was the case again in Lurgan. John Schofield’s side created 16 chances in total compared to just four for Malta.
The win for Malta saw them leapfrog Northern Ireland to move into fourth place in the group.