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Thursday 28 Dec 2023
2023 review: Northern Ireland senior men’s team

The Northern Ireland senior men’s team had a solid start to the year and an excellent finish to it.

But in between, it is fair to say, things did not quite go according to plan.

With Michael O’Neill back in charge, the start of the UEFA Euro 2024 qualification campaign offered hope of a second Northern Ireland appearance at a European Championship finals following on from Euro 2016 in France.

However, it was not to be. O’Neill was severely hampered by injuries to key members of his squad throughout the year and many games in Group H were lost by a single goal. The term “fine margins” was oft repeated.

It all got off to a decent start, although prior to the first game of the campaign, against San Marino away, the manager suffered the first of many injury headaches. For the game in Serravalle in March he was without Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas, Shayne Lavery and Alistair McCann.

Dion Charles opened his international account with a brace to ensure O’Neill enjoyed a winning return as Northern Ireland manager with a comfortable 2-0 victory over San Marino.


Northern Ireland fell to their first defeat of the Euro 2024 qualification campaign the same month as O’Neill’s Belfast return ended in frustration.

Finland, chasing their first points in Group H, secured a first win in 20 years over the boys in green and white thanks to Benjamin Kallman’s 28th minute strike.

Matchday three was an encounter in June with top seeds Denmark at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen.

Northern Ireland fell to a narrow one-goal defeat but at the final whistle it felt like a more crushing loss than the scoreline suggests after debutant Callum Marshall saw a stoppage time equaliser ruled out for offside following a lengthy VAR check.


The Danes scored the only goal of the game just after the break when Jonas Wind netted.

Four days later it was back to Belfast for a match against Kazakhstan in which Kazakh substitute Abat Aimbetov produced a late solo strike to secure a dramatic 1-0 win at the National Football Stadium. It was a frustrating end to the June double header for O’Neill and his players.

Jamal Lewis and Conor Bradley were among the absentees for an away double header in September, although Paul Smyth returned to the fold after a two-year absence from the senior squad.

First up was a helter-skelter game in Ljubljana in which Northern Ireland lost out 4-2 to Slovenia at Stozice Stadion.

Slovenia’s goals were scored by Andraz Sporar (two), Petar Stojanovic and Benjamin Sesko, while Isaac Price and Jonny Evans were on target for Northern Ireland. It was Price’s first senior international goal.


The second game in September, against Kazakhstan in Astana, was another frustrating encounter.

The visitors created twice as many chances as Kazakhstan in what was often a bruising and physical contest - and enjoyed 55% of the possession - but could not find a way through a resolute home defence once the Kazakhs had taken the lead in the 27th minute through Maxim Samorodov.

October started well thanks to a 3-0 victory over San Marino in Belfast. Goals from Paul Smyth, Josh Magennis and Conor McMenamin secured the comfortable win in front of a full house at the National Stadium.


However, four days later it was another case of what might have been.

Slovenia were the visitors to Belfast and a sweetly struck free-kick from Adam Cerin in the fourth minute was enough to earn them a 1-0 victory.

Northern Ireland competed well against the Slovenians throughout, however they could not muster an equaliser after the visitors grabbed the early lead.

November brought more highs and lows.

O’Neill’s side started well against Finland in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki before the Finns showed ruthless efficiency when scoring four goals without reply. The goals were scored by Joel Pohjanpalo (penalty), Daniel Hakans, Teemu Pukki and Robin Lod.

Northern Ireland’s final Group H game, and final game of 2023, provided a welcome morale-booster and hopefully a glimpse of things to come.

Denmark, who had already secured their qualification for Euro 2024 in Germany prior to visiting Belfast, were strong favourites going in to the game, however Northern Ireland had other ideas and played some slick football.

Second half goals from Isaac Price and Dion Charles secured a fine 2-0 win in front of a bouncing, exuberant National Stadium.