Michael O’Neill said he expected his players to show character against high flying Denmark in Belfast tonight – and they certainly delivered.
Northern Ireland finished off what has been a frustrating UEFA Euro 2024 qualification campaign with an excellent 2-0 win against Denmark.
Denmark, who secured their qualification for UEFA Euro 2024 in Germany with a 2-1 home win over Slovenia in Group H on Friday, had a target “to win six out of six” tonight, according to Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who was wearing the captain’s armband as he earned his 99th cap for his country.
But the Danes were left disappointed as second half goals from Isaac Price and Dion Charles secured a morale-boosting win for Northern Ireland and scuppered Denmark’s hopes of another three points in the group.
O’Neill said he was looking for “something positive” at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park following the 4-0 defeat away to Finland on Friday.
He got it in the first half in the shape of a resolute defensive performance in front of 18,000-plus fans, including a colourful contingent of around 1200 Denmark fans.
And he got it in the second half with a combination of some great attacking play and more first class defensive work.
Northern Ireland showed three changes from the starting line-up against the Finns, with Shea Charles, Dale Taylor and Ciaron Brown replacing Jordan Thompson, Ross McCausland and the injured Daniel Ballard.
The Danes, who had won their previous five qualifiers, had seven changes in personnel from the team that started against Slovenia and early on their play was a bit disjointed.
The boys in green and white had the first chance of the game. Dion Charles broke clear of the Danish defence and smashed the ball against the post. Minutes later Eoin Toal put a header wide of the upright.
Denmark’s first opportunity saw defender Joachim Andersen get on the end of a corner but he steered his header wide.
Then Danish midfielder Morten Hjulmand fizzed one over the top from around 25 yards.
Striker Mohamed Daramy had an effort blocked by Northern Ireland captain Paddy McNair as the visitors tried to impose themselves on the game, while Andersen had a shot from distance which sailed over the bar.
Northern Ireland keeper Conor Hazard gathered well as Denmark threatened the goal with a slick exchange of passes.
And Danish frontman Kasper Dolberg scooped a shot wide from close range as the group leaders continued to push forward.
A wicked Mathias Jensen corner almost caught out Hazard, with the ball bouncing off him.
The Northern Ireland keeper got down well to keep out a low drive from Andreas Christensen with his legs.
Just after the restart Toal came within inches of putting Northern Ireland ahead. Jamal Lewis whipped in a cross which Toal headed just wide.
Northern Ireland took the lead on the hour mark. A flowing move which began inside their own half eventually saw Dion Charles feed the ball to Shea Charles and he slipped it to Isaac Price who fired the ball past Schmeichel from an angle.
Danish substitute Pierre-Emile Hojberg blasted a shot well off target as Denmark went in search of an equaliser.
Denmark probed constantly, however McNair and Toal in particular were excellent at keeping them at bay, and they were ably assisted by Trai Hume and Ciaron Brown.
On 81 minutes Northern Ireland went two up. George Saville found substitute Conor McMenamin with a superb pass and he sped down the left flank before delivering the perfect cross to the far post where Dion Charles was on hand to gleefully stroke it home.
In added time Hazard tipped a close range shot from Dolberg over the bar and right at the death he thwarted substitute Jonas Wind, but there was no way back for the Danes.
Northern Ireland: Conor Hazard, Trai Hume, Ciaron Brown, Eoin Toal, Paddy McNair (captain), George Saville, Dale Taylor, Shea Charles, Dion Charles, Isaac Price, Jamal Lewis.
Substitutes: (used) Paul Smyth, Conor McMenamin, Jordan Thompson, Conor Washington; (unused) Stephen McMullan, Luke Southwood, Caolan Boyd-Munce, Ross McCausland, Jordan Jones, Callum Marshall, Brodie Spencer, Josh Magennis.
Denmark: Kasper Schmeichel, Jesper Lindstrom, Victor Kristiansen, Rasmus Kristensen, Andreas Christensen, Joachim Andersen, Matthew O’Riley, Morten Hjulmand, Kasper Dolberg, Mohamed Daramy, Mathias Jensen.
Substitutes: Mads Hermansen (GK), Frederik Ronnow (GK), Victor Nelsson, Jannik Vestergaard, Joakim Maehle, Thomas Delaney, Jens Stryger, Jonas Wind, Yussuf Poulsen, Anders Dreyer, Pierre-Emile Hojberg.