Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-1 Northern Ireland (3-4 pens)
So, what were the chances of Liam Boyce waxing his noggin yesterday morning, thinking today was the day he’d write himself into the GAWA history books?
Ulster’s favourite baldy only came on as a sub in the very last minute of extra-time in what Ian Baraclough must hail as a brave and astute footballing decision. Only once before have Northern Ireland found themselves playing beyond 90 minutes, that an eventual 2-1 victory over the Czechs in the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden. We have never had to go to pens.
This was set to be an historical evening one way or another. It was Steven Davis’ 120th opportunity to make us happy when skies are grey and, of course, to surpass Pat Jennings’ appearance record. Fans home and abroad danced in the streets, some even bucked-out by the mainland’s 10pm curfew. A first-time ever penalty shoot-out that unearthed an unlikely hero, watched by many in and through the plate-glass windows of disinfected sports bars.
Our last visit to Sarajevo was a memorable one. Not the result of course, but the fact we simply loved the place. And they loved us. So, it was sad not to return in circumstances none of us could have ever envisaged. Still, it was refreshing to see almost 2,000 home fans there, questionably distanced, but nevertheless providing a much-needed break from the audio carpet we now get piped through our screens and have no choice but to put up with.
It all started to look like rinse and repeat. The Bosnians got off to the perfect start, dominating primarily through Džeko and Pjanić with Northern Ireland finding it hard to settle. An unfortunate slip from the returning Jonny Evans was cruelly punished when full-back Cipetić found Krunić unmarked and that was that. 1-0. Were we going to come back from this?
Moments later Big Josh produced a blinding header from a McNair cross forcing Ibrahim Šehić to pull off an astounding left hand save. That should have been the equaliser. We were not going to get a better opportunity than that. A wayward pass by Stuart Dallas spared our blushes further when Pjanić should have capitalised, instead going wide of a clearly beaten Peacock-Farrell.
The first half ended fairly spritely, despite both teams ordinary at best. Our heads didn’t drop with some fine individual performances by young Jamal and McNair especially, despite Bosnia looking much more dangerous on the break. George Saville, who had a shocker on his last visit to Stadion Grbavica, saw his left-footed effort deflected over. It was now time for Baraclough’s half-time team talk. He will have been hoping this did better than his last one.
The second half started confidently. Northern Ireland had come close and were exposing obvious frailties. Then, 8 minutes after the restart Niall McGinn had a grapple for possession with Siniša Saničanin just inside the box, won the ball and rifled the equaliser past Šehić. Could this be our night after all?
This was the King of Lyon’s first away start in over 5 years and he continued the second half much less anonymous than in the first, putting in a great cross that could have, and arguably should have seen McNair put us ahead.
The rest of the half had its moments. Both Lewis, now a stalwart, and Saville went close with Peacock-Farrell pulling of some fine saves from Krunić and Hadžiahmetović. In fact, BPF was fairly decent all game, making himself look big when he had to. Clearly the Burnley diet of pies and mash with extra gravy is paying off. He denied Džeko on a few occasions and had a Pjanić free kick covered, despite it hitting the crossbar.
And so it was to be extra-time. Great for those of us in front of the telly but not so great for those having to sup-up and get out. We deserved the extra time. We showed spirit and guile in the second half that was not in any way evident last month against Norway at Windsor Park. It was all to play for tonight. Could we use the next 30 minutes to our advantage?
In extra-time the fatigue was obvious in both sides. However, the second period became a nervy, exciting, end-to-end show, seeing Saville and substitute Gavin Whyte both having opportunities to score. Both Jordans – Jones and Thompson – had come on as subs earlier in the game and had both settled in well. Thompson forced a save close to full-time after the Bosnian defence allowed him oodles of space and time to force a save from Šehić. So it was a surprise to see both subs replaced in the very final minute of extra time by Conor Washington and Liam Boyce. I think that’s a Norn Iron first as well – subbing two subs in a competitive game.
This was a gutsy decision by Baraclough. Sure, they’ll have talked about pens, practiced pens but have had no experience of ever taking them in competition. It was finger-in-the-air time with the possibility of making history. Baraclough had shown some balls from the outset, starting Corry on the right and McGinn on the left. Dallas, McNair and Lewis all had great individual performances with Steven Davis the wheels of industry as always.
We all knew we’d have to look to Bailey Peacock-Farrell to pull off a save or two, and underneath it all, we were all quietly confident he could. We’d nothing to go off. There wasn’t really any ‘nerves’ per se. What was there to be nervous about? We weren’t England. There was no monkey on our back.
Pjanić was up first, bulletting past a stretching BPF. Then to Dallas, who looked confident and composed with a successful drive straight to the middle. 1-1.
Back to Bosnia. Hajradinović to take advantage, but BPF went the right way with audible shouts of “Get in” from the bench as it was advantage Northern Ireland.
Then the panic set in. It was Lafferty’s turn. Looking more match fit than he has for a while, one does wonder how much longer he can do a job for us, but tonight he did, sending Šehić the wrong way. Now it was Edin Višća’s turn, cannoning off the bar. Brilliant. Just brilliant. All Saville had to do was score and we were one kick away from a play-off final. But he didn’t, instead adding to his Bosnian misery and offering a lifeline to the hosts. Saville will never want to set foot in Sarajevo again!
Now the turn of Hotić, who made no mistake sending BPF the wrong way. 2-2. Conor Washington was up next shooting into the top corner. 2-3. Now Džeko’s turn to keep Bosnia in the game which, of course, we knew he would. So he did.
So, at 3-3 it was down to Liam Boyce. Who would have thought it? Hero or villain? As the floodlights shone off his baby smooth bap, up he steps and bang. That’s it! We’re through. Liam Boyce has sent us through to a play-off final in our home city against the Slovakians, also winners of their penalty shoot-out after a 0-0 home draw with the Republic. Secretly, it would have been good for that result to go the other way, but no complaints.
What a night. What a win. What a story. Delighted for Baraclough as our defeat to Norway was harsh on him. We waited a long time for this match and when we’ve needed lady luck before, for whatever reason, she’s looked away.
Bring it on. Liam Boyce’s Baldy Army.
Final Score: Bosnia-Herzegovina 1 (Krunić 13) Northern Ireland 1 (McGinn 53)
After extra time. Northern Ireland win 4-3 on penalties
Šehić, Cipetić, Ahmedhodžić, Saničanin, Kolašinac (Hajradinović 118), Cimirot (Lončar 105), Hadžiahmetović (Gojak 83), Pjanić, Višća, Džeko, Krunić (Hotić 88)
Subs not used: Begović, Pirić, Nastić, Todorović, Hodžić, Hadžikadunić, Đurić, Milošević
Peacock-Farrell, McNair (Thompson 90 [Boyce 120]), Cathcart, J. Evans, Lewis, C. Evans (Whyte 73), Dallas, Davis, Saville, McGinn (Jones 82 [Washington 120]), Magennis (Lafferty 90)
Subs not used: McGovern, Carson, McLaughlin, Flanagan, Ferguson, Ballard