Northern Ireland changed style in 2018 - but not the boss nor the scoring record
THE record may seem stuck on repeat but the background sounds signalled a significant switch of style.
There’ll be some temptation to change the tune, to reprise the old ‘hard to beat’ groove, but Northern Ireland’s new pass and move approach bodes much better for the future.
So does the fact that the man in charge of selections remains the same, with Michael O’Neill having turned down overtures from Scotland in favour of signing an improved, extended contract until 2022.
The struggles to score echo on and on, so admittedly improving results remains a major challenge in the short-term, especially given the tough nature of the Euro 2020 qualifiers draw.
That outcome certainly needled, prompting a return to the review refrain of the previous year, that ‘if it wasn’t for bad luck Northern Ireland wouldn’t have no luck at all.’
After somehow losing all four Nations League matches, despite playing well to ‘very well’ in all of them, Michael O’Neill and his men were then kicked when they were down in Dublin.
Not for the November friendly which they bossed but – predictably enough – failed to win due to not converting chances.
No, the real pain came early the next month, at that qualifiers draw which pitted NI against Germany again – and they were only the second seeds, with the resurgent Netherlands also in Group C.
It always seem to be Group C, doesn’t it?
Indeed, such is NI’s magnetic attraction to that particular letter they were pulled into it after the Republic of Ireland were, fortuitously, lifted out of it, due to them, the Germans, and the Dutch all being hosts for the multi-venue 2020 finals tournament.
That was almost predictable; karma, some might say, for O’Neill’s controversial remarks way back in the early spring about players switching international allegiance to the Republic. There’s certainly a better chance of getting to the next Euros with the latter now.
Yet the convoluted, complicated nature of the new qualifying process means that Northern Ireland don’t necessarily have to return to winning ways until next year.
Indeed their best hope of reaching Euro 2020 may come early next year, via the Nations League play-offs.
Given the likelihood that the Netherlands and Germany will fill the two automatic qualification slits from Group C, O’Neill and his men may find themselves trying to win League B next spring.
That will require a certain number of sides qualifying automatically so, rather than squinting at that particularly unclear future, let’s return to the real purpose of this article, looking back at 2018 – however unpleasant that may be.
On the face of it last year was a stinker. No competitive wins, five defeats overall, and just four goals scored – two of those in the first match of the year, at home to South Korea/ Korea Republic.
Even that positive 2-1 comeback victory became bitter-sweet with hindsight after watching the South Koreans go on to shock Germany at the World Cup; worse still was seeing Switzerland drawing with Brazil at that tournament.
The Swiss had edged the World Cup play-off 1-0, thanks to an unfair penalty decision in Belfast, but NI learnt a valuable lesson from that game and continued to play that more attacking brand of football which they had deployed in the second leg in Basel.
Personnel changed too, as shown by Paul Smyth coming off the bench to score the winner against South Korea, after Jamal Lewis had been handed his debut at left-back and Jordan Jones given his first start in attack.
There was a new, albeit old-ish, keeper too, Trevor Carson making his senior bow at the age of 30, but the number one jersey seems set to be claimed long-term by Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who replaced the Motherwell man at half-time of the summer friendly in Panama, which ended in a goalless draw.
A more experienced – but probably tired – team then lost 3-0 a few days later in Costa Rica, but the moves towards a younger, pacier side were continuing.
Even so, few would have predicted the excellence of the performance at home to Bosnia & Herzegovina, with fast, front foot football creating a series of chances. Familiar failings in front of goal – and unfamilair defensive errors – contributed to an undeserved defeat.
2018 has cemented George Saville’s place in the team, the midfielder having moved up from Millwall to Middlesbrough in his club career. The only question mark that still hangs over him is to wonder how come he still hasn’t scored on the international scene.
Lewis too is a cert going forward, in every sense; the queries remain over his positional sense, but he’s still only 20 (21 later this month), so there’s plenty of time for improvement in that regard.
Sadly the clock is ticking on captain fantastic Steven Davis, who turned 34 on New Year’s Day. However, his loan move to Rangers will give him much-needed game-time and he can also link up with and influence Kyle Lafferty again.
Ah. Kyle Lafferty.
The Kesh man could still be the answer to NI’s perennial goal-scoring problems but he needs to sort out his own personal issues in order to become a regular and reliable option up front again.
Due to off-field difficulties he chose not to travel out for the games in Vienna and Sarajevo and both were lost due to the lack of a finisher.
My choice would be Will Grigg, who headed against a post late on against Austria, but manager O’Neill seems to prefer a more industrious ‘number nine’, such as Josh Magennis, Conor Washington, or perhaps even newcomer Kyle Vassell.
Perhaps the greatest positives of 2018 were provided by the U21s, under the inspired management of Ian Baraclough, but even they weren’t prolific in front of goal.
Still, at a level where Northern Ireland seemed to have barely ever won, these lads kept making their own history, over a year during which they just got better and better.
They lost 5-3 at home to a starlet-studded Spain side, then mirrored the seniors by battering opponents (Iceland, in this case) to a goalless draw - but much better was to follow.
Baraclough’s boys went to Spain and won, 2-1. That’s right. Won. In Spain.
They then grabbed a late winner against Iceland, before edging out Slovakia in the final group game – but it still wasn’t enough to secure qualification.
However, those results did ensure a two-year contract extension for Baraclough. The challenge for him now is to help more of those players step up onto the senior stage.
Smyth has already done so, as has winger Gavin Whyte, and quick players with an eye for goal are exactly what Northern Ireland need.
Getting game-time in professional football is also necessary, so it’s positive too that Whyte has been joined at his club Oxford United by Mark Sykes, from Glenavon.
Manager O’Neill will continue his efforts to get squad members more playing time, at decent levels in England or the Scottish top flight,
Turning good performances into better results may be even more tricky. It’s hard to be optimistic about this year, given that brutal Euro 2020 qualifiers draw.
The only up-side of that came in the form of the schedule, with the four easier games first, and indeed the first two at home, against Estonia and Belarus respectively, followed by the reverse fixtures in that same order.
Conceivably, NI could collect anything from eight to 12 points, but the real tests will come in the final third of the year.
Germany come to Belfast on Monday September 9, four days after a strange home friendly, against minnows Luxembourg. Perhaps that will give the home side greater confidence about scoring, but if they still need that by the autumn then the slim chance of qualifying will probably have gone anyway.
Then it may be time for a 2020 Nations League reprise…
2018 RESULTS (Uefa Nations League, unless stated otherwise)
March 24 (friendly): NI 2-1 Korea Republic
May 30 (friendly): Panama 0-0 NI
June 3 (friendly): Costa Rica 3-0 NI
September 8: NI 1-2 Bosnia & Herzegovina
September 11 (friendly): NI 3-0 Israel
October 12: Austria 1-0 NI
October 15: Bosnia & Herzegovina 2-0 NI
November 15 (friendly): Republic of Ireland 0-0 NI
November 18: NI 1-2 Austria
2019 FIXTURES (Euro 2020 qualifiers, unless stated otherwise)
Thursday March 21: Estonia (H)
Sunday March 24: Belarus (H)
Saturday June 8: Estonia (a)
Tuesday June 11: Belarus (a)
Thursday September 5 (friendly): Luxembourg (H)
Monday September 9: Germany (H)
Thursday October 10: Netherlands (a)
Saturday November 16: Netherlands (H)
Tuesday November 19: Germany (a)
WHAT THEY SAID...
“When I took the job there was no expectation, really, and that’s the worst situation you can have as a player certainly. The players have changed that, they relish the expectation.
“[T]he decision I made wasn’t a financial one. Ultimately, the money in club football is greater than it is in international football.
“I’ve been offered opportunities to be better off financially in club football, before France and subsequently, after this campaign as well.
“It doesn’t put any added pressure on me. There’s a lot of security in the contract and that’s a nice position to be in.”
Michael O’Neill in early February, explaining his decision to stay with Northern Ireland rather than switch to Scotland.
“For me, eligibility is not, and should not, be a political issue. Nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility is a football issue.
“Recent media reports have sparked much opinion, particularly around the rights of players born in Northern Ireland to be free to choose for whom they wish to play.
“I have never disputed that right, nor have I ever been critical of a player for exercising that right.
“The FAI correctly states it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players requesting they switch allegiance to the Republic of Ireland.
“My concerns lie specifically with players aged 17-21 in the underage set-ups.”
Part of O’Neill’s 600-word statement in March on the thorny subject of international allegiance.
“I was brought up with the youth and I thought, ‘If I get my chance with the Northern Ireland first team, I’ll take it’. I’m happy enough, I got my chance there.”
Paul Smyth after his winning goal against Korea Republic on the subject of switching international allegiance.
“I knew from Monday I was playing, but I also knew I still had a job to do,” he said. “I could easily have gone out there and had a beast and never played again for Northern Ireland…”
Goalkeeper Trevor Carson after making his first senior start at the age of 30.
“The conditions we were playing in were incredible. For the players to have to come at this stage of their season, with the level of preparation we’ve had, you can’t ask for anymore - their heart, their desire. Years ago Northern Ireland used to come to places like this, lose the game and it didn’t really matter. It matters to the players now, they don’t want to be beaten.”
O’Neill on the goalless draw in Panama.
“It would have been nice to come out here and get two positive results. Today has just shown maybe it was a game too much. We were heavily reliant on our older boys and it’s a big ask. There’s potential there but we can’t expect these young lads to come in and play international football.”
The boss reflecting on the 3-0 defeat in Costa Rica.
“I’ve had several chats with the England goalkeeping coaches. One rang me the other week in fact, but I’m loyal to Northern Ireland. They got in really early and made me feel wanted.
“At that time when I met Michael [O’Neill]I was a nobody, I was just a young ’keeper. But for him to take that time out of his day to come and chat to me, and tell me about Northern Ireland, the pathway and what we’re planning on doing as a country, for me that was special.”
Bailey Peacock-Farrell on ignoring overtures from his native England.
“Obviously we’re really disappointed with the goals and I’ll take full responsibility for the second one. “It was one of the most one-sided defeats I’ve ever played in. It was so frustrating coming off the pitch. It was one of the most complete performances that a Northern Ireland team has put in in my time.”
Craig Cathcart after the unfortunate 2-1 home defeat to Bosnia & Herzegovina in the Uefa Nations League opener.
“Michael said that after the game, he mentioned the competition right throughout the squad. We have five strikers and we also have five central midfielders. You look at every position and we’ve got a lot of options going forward…it’s great for Michael to have that throughout the team.”
Corry Evans on the battle for starting slots.
“Michael spoke about how can we drive that forward, be positive and not sit back in games and hope we can nick something. Let’s try and take the initiative and drive it forward.
“We’ve got a good group of players playing at a good level, we’ve got good legs in the team, good physicality about us, players who can run and that’s a big thing in the way he wants to play and we’ve seen in last two games it’s something we can do.”
Oliver Norwood on the change in playing style.
“I haven’t thought about what happens next. International football is a choice and at this moment in time Kyle Lafferty has chosen to make himself unavailable… “Of course he will get his chance to decide his future – unless he decides to retire from international football.”
O’Neill talking about Kyle Lafferty’s decision not to travel out to Austria.
“There’s no magic formula we need someone to stick the ball in the net, it’s as simple as that.
“We’re challenged a little bit at the moment with the striker situation. For a lot of our strikers this is a step up, they’re still getting used to international football.
“They’re stepping up from League One and Championship football. There’s not a great track record there in terms of scoring international goals."
O’Neill explains what’s needed after one goal from 34 efforts against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Austria.
“It was a difficult night losing that match. I think Thursday will be different because there will be a bigger crowd and better atmosphere. And it will be good for us to show how we have progressed as a nation. We are used to going to these types of environments.”
Niall McGinn on NI’s progress since losing 5-0 to the Republic of Ireland in 2011.
“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.”
Paddy McNair after the disappointing goalless draw in Dublin.
“It’s always disappointing when you lose the game with the last kick of the ball but we can take a lot of positives out of the performance.
“The manner of the way we played; going a goal down, we came back to level the game and at that stage it looked like we were the only side going to go win the game but it wasn’t to be.
“We have to take great confidence from the way we have been playing in the campaign and take that into the Euro 2020 qualifiers.”
Corry Evans, scorer in the 2-1 home defeat by Austria.
“It’s a little bit unfair, the nature of it. I understand the rationale behind it, but I do think it’s a little bit unfair, to be honest, the fact that you’re hosting the tournament gets you certain privileges in the draw.
“And that’s not aimed at the Republic of Ireland, that’s Scotland as well, who could easily have been in that group as well.
“When that group came out, with Germany and Holland initially, there were teams who knew they couldn’t be in that group – but we weren’t one of them.”
O’Neill on being placed in a very tough Euro 2020 qualifying group – instead of the Republic of Ireland.