Football/Soccer

Soccer: 2020 vision still in focus for new-look Northern Ireland

Members of the Northern Ireland U16 Schoolboys squad who won the Victory Shield for only the second time ever thanks to a 3-1 win over Wales in Tralee yesterday. That win added to an earlier 3-1 victory over the hosts, Republic of Ireland, and a 1-1 midweek draw with Scotland, to secure the trophy once more after the only previous triumph, in 2000-01, a team which included current senior skipper Steven Davis.

Uefa Nations League B3: Northern Ireland v Austria (Windsor Park, tomorrow, 5pm)

THEY think it’s all over…it’s not. In fact it hasn’t even begun.

The real business of qualifying for Euro 2020, that is.

Northern Ireland’s three matches (and three defeats) so far in the Nations League haven’t exactly been meaningless; indeed a win or draw today could help in terms of a better seeding for next month’s (Euro 2020) qualifying draw in Dublin.

However, even another loss tomorrow won’t alter the high probability of Michael O’Neill’s men being involved in, yes, you guessed it (or maybe you didn’t), the Uefa Nations League play-offs. In March 2020. Rest assured all will become clear after that.

Until then, one way or the other, O’Neill is setting his sights on being in charge of one of the 24 teams taking part in the multi-host extravaganza that will be the expanded European championships in 2020.

The failure to pick up any points, unlucky though that has been, against Bosnia-Herzegovina and tomorrow’s visitors Austria will have an adverse impact on NI’s ranking ahead of the Euro 2020 draw and even the next World Cup.

Yet the performances, rather than the results, including Thursday night’s positive display in a goalless draw away to the Republic of Ireland, hold out the hope that Northern Ireland can be part of Euro 2020, even though they won’t be part of the top 20 teams in the 2020-21 Nations League.

Got that?

Good, let’s move on.

There was a mixture of rhetoric and reality when O’Neill asked – and answered – the following question:

"What does relegation from the Nations League mean?"

"I don't think anyone really knows, apart from the fact that when this competition comes around again in two years' time we're playing in League C.

"But in two years' time we'll be trying to qualify for a World Cup rather than the Euros. It hurts us in terms of the play-offs but we're building a team for qualifying, trying to finish in the top two of a group.

"In the last two campaigns we've won a group and finished second. I think the team is getting stronger, there's a youthfulness about it and maybe more pace than there has been."

What’s still missing, as so often in the past, is the finishing touch. David Healy and, during Euro 2016 qualifying, Kyle Lafferty provided that at times in the past.

Until Northern Ireland convert more of their chances into goals, though, they will continue to struggle for good results, no matter how good their displays are.

The versatile Paddy McNair wasn’t too despondent about failing to beat a limited Republic of Ireland side, commenting:

“Throughout the game I thought we were the better side and definitely had the better chances but just didn’t take them.

“I think sometimes, especially in friendly games, you want a performance and maybe on another day the goals would have gone in. It would be more of a worry if we weren’t creating the chances.

“We are creating them and sometimes with teams you get these little spells when the ball isn’t hitting the back of the net. I think that will change soon for us though.”

McNair believes the current squad is better than that of 2016: “The lads that have come in from the last Euros have done really well, like Gavin Whyte and Jamal Lewis. They have definitely strengthened the team and we have to be confident going into the next campaign and believe that we can qualify.”

Another newcomer has been goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and the Leeds United goalkeeper was pleased to avoid another defeat, even if the visitors really should have been victors in the Aviva Stadium:

“It was good to get a clean sheet. For myself and the rest of the team it is always nice to not concede.

“We look back at the chances that we had and I feel we were the better team so it is slightly disappointing that we didn’t put them away. Coming away with a 2-0 or 3-0 victory would have been a fair result.

“It is frustrating that we aren’t putting the opportunities away but you have to take the positives that we are getting into those positions regularly. That’s the hardest part, now we just have to work on getting the ball in the net.

“We’ll take the positives out of this game and build into Austria.”

Boss O’Neill is likely to experiment a little with his line-up, saying: "We'll see where we go but what I do have is 28 players - we let Tom Flanagan go back to Sunderland to play [today] - but we have 28 players, no withdrawals, there's a bunch of lads desperate to play.

"It's a healthy situation to be in. We'll probably make a few changes for Sunday. I know everyone will be itching to play".

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