Ten-man Northern Ireland enjoyed a welcome victory in their third match in the U21 Euro 2025 qualifying series.
After narrowly losing their two opening qualifiers last month, Tommy Wright’s Under-21 side produced a gritty display to defeat Azerbaijan U21s by a goal to nil in Baku this afternoon.
The only goal of the game at the Qarabagh Stadium was scored by striker Ciaran McGuckin - and Northern Ireland had to play for almost two-thirds of the match with just 10 men.
U21s manager Wright made three changes from the team that lost narrowly to Ukraine (1-0) away in September.
He welcomed defender Aaron Donnelly into his squad for the first time. Donnelly, who was in the senior panel back in June, did not play at international level in September due to injury.
However, the polished centre back was sent off in the 37th minute, triggering a determined performance by his team-mates in what was a pretty scrappy encounter.
Azerbaijan attacker Ramin Nasirli hit the woodwork on 11 minutes as the hosts started on the front foot.
Then defender Mahir Hasanov steered an effort wide before Northern Ireland grabbed the lead in the 19th minute. A Sean Stewart free-kick was cleared for a corner. Stewart’s delivery from the corner was met by McGuckin and his header found the back of the net.
Donnelly got his marching orders for pulling back attacking midfielder Murad Velijev inside the area. However, the spot kick was fired wide by striker Dzhamal Dzhafarov.
On the stroke of half-time McGuckin was presented with another opportunity, however this time he missed the target.
The hosts piled on the pressure after the break. Centre forward Aghadadash Salyanskiy shot wide before Dzhafarov forced a save out of Northern Ireland keeper Stephen McMullan.
However, it was not all Azerbaijan. Northern Ireland midfielder Charlie Allen had an effort well saved by Azerbaijan keeper Yusif Imanov on 57 minutes.
McMullan was called into action once again in the 71st minute, this time to thwart an effort from substitute Samir Maharramli.
Velijev and defender Huseyn Babayev spurned opportunities as the hosts went in search of an equaliser.
The ref produced a handful of yellow cards towards the end as things became a bit tetchy, including cards for Northern Ireland substitutes Micheal Glynn and Chris McKee, however Azerbaijan could not find a way through.
Next up in Group F for the U21s is a home game against Serbia on Monday (16 October). It is being staged at Mourneview Park in Lurgan, with a 19.30 kick-off.
Later today Serbia are due to play top seeds England at the City Ground in Nottingham, while Ukraine are facing Luxembourg, who also defeated Northern Ireland 1-0 last month.
Azerbaijan U21s: Yusif Imanov, Abdulla Rzayev, Mirali Ahmadov, Mahir Hasanov, Huseyn Babayev, Veysal Rzayev, Murad Velijev, Ramin Nasirli, Aghadadash Salyanskiy, Farid Yusifli (captain), Dzhamal Dzahafarov.
Substitutes: Rza Jafarov (GK), Nazim Hasanzade, Samir Maharramli, Zeynaddin Abdurahmanov, Aykhan Suleymali, Ibrahim Ramazanov, Samir Abdullayev, Rufat Ahmadov, Khayal Aliyev.
Northern Ireland U21s: Stephen McMullan, Sean Stewart, Carl Johnston (captain), Michael Forbes, Sam McClelland,Aaron Donnelly, Charlie Allen, Charlie McCann, Ciaran McGuckin, JJ McKiernan, Patrick Kelly.
Substitutes: (used) Jamie McDonnell, Terry Devlin, Micheal Glynn, Chris McKee, Tommy Fogarty; (unused) Josh Clarke (GK), Justin Devenny, Ross McCausland, Charlie Lindsay.