NI Women serve up dull draw against Montenegro

Uefa Women’s Nations League B/C promotion/relegation play-off, second leg: Northern Ireland 1-1 Montenegro (3-1 on aggregate)

Laura Rafferty captaining Northern Ireland women against Montenegro
New leader in green: Laura Rafferty captained Northern Ireland women against Montenegro

While ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’ has long been a phrase to indicate dullness and disappointment, ‘Before the new First Minister and President’ could now take on a similar meaning.

The symbolic attendance of Sinn Fein’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill did not serve to inspire her fellow females in green. New GAA President Jarlath Burns was also there – and if he thinks Gaelic football has problems with entertainment then the first hour and more of this match may have given him pause.

Eventually drama did come, with Medina Desic giving Montenegro the lead 20 minutes into the second half, before Simone Magill made sure NI would progress with a leveller five minutes later.

Northern Ireland’s Simone Magill celebrates scoring against Montenegro
Northern Ireland’s Simone Magill celebrates scoring against Montenegro during Tuesday night’s UEFA Women's Nations League play-off at Windsor Park, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry

Job done, NI’s place in Nations League B retained – but, girl, was it hard work, especially for those watching.

The hosts made two changes from their 2-0 first leg win, with Caragh Hamilton and Megan Bell starting in midfield instead of usual captain Marissa Callaghan and Danielle Maxwell.

However, although Sarah McFadden shook off an injury concern to start, it was her central defensive partner Laura Rafferty who took the armband.

The visitors made just one alteration, recalling defender Maja Saranovic after suspension, replacing Aleksandra Popovic, but they played with more purpose than in the first leg.

Although Joely Andrews strode forward for a shot – sent wide – inside 18 seconds, the visitors then began brightly themselves.

Encouraged to press high, they almost got an early reward. A poor square pass presented the ball to midfielder Jasna Djokovic, who served up a chance on a plate to Armisa Kuc, but her scooped effort was well parried behind for a corner by the quickly advancing Maddy Harvey-Clifford.

The hosts then re-asserted control, dominating possession and territory, to the extent that left-back Demi Vance was over on the right on a few occasions in order to take corners and deliver in-swingers from high positions. However, they came to nothing, while the advanced efforts of right-back Rebecca McKenna were also in vain in terms of testing the Montenegrin goalkeeper.

Indeed home netminder Harvey-Clifford had to be alert to sweep up balls over the top with Montenegro seeking to use the pace of Desic. The visitors continued to look threatening, but were caught out several times by the home offside trap.

One of the few satisfactions for NI manager Tanya Oxtoby in a largely dreadful first half must have been that the players brought in, Bell and Hamilton, at least caught the eye – but few others in green did.

At last, in injury time, an Andrews tackle allowed Simone Magill to play in Hamilton on right and her low shot squirmed through the keeper’s grasp, but it probably wouldn’t have had the pace to cross the line and Jelena Karlicic got back to clear anyway.

Somehow the spectators found the generosity to applaud the teams off.

Both bosses made half-time changes - Oxtoby sent on Callaghan and Ellie Mason for Andrews and McFadden, while Popovic replaced Saric for Montenegro.

Yet the first moment that brought a roar from the crowd was a booking for a Montenegrin for complaining fiercely about a free kick not being awarded against Callaghan for a challenge that left Karlicic grounded.

The number 10 had her revenge, though, swinging in the corner from which Desic headed in from close range, to bring the match and tie to life.

Five minutes later NI should have levelled, but Magill first shot against the bar and sub Danielle Maxwell saw her follow-up shot deflected wide.

The next minute, though, Maxwell hoisted a high ball in, Mason headed it back over the wandering goalkeeper, and Magill volleyed into the empty net.

Montenegro pushed for a second goal, although they needed two more, and space opened up for the hosts to seek a winner on the night but even with five minutes of added time neither side provided any more excitement.

Northern Ireland: Harvey-Clifford; McKenna, McFadden (Mason, h-t), Rafferty (capt.), Vance; Hamilton, McCarron, Andrews (Callaghan, h-t), Bell (Halliday, 71); Wade (Maxwell, 60), Magill.

Montenegro: Krstovic; Saranovic, Djukic, Saric (Popovic, h-t), Bozic; Karlicic, Djurkovic (Tomasevic, 76, Djokovic (Vujadinovic, 91); Bulatovic (capt.); Desic, Kuc.

Referee: Hristiyana Guteva (Bulgaria).

Attendance: 4,085.