Another 1,060 GAWA were granted entrance to Windsor Park for the last international fixture of 2020. They were unable to witness Ian Baraclough’s first win as Northern Ireland manager but as has become common in recent fixtures, there were elements of potential from the new additions to the squad, giving Northern Irish football something to cling to as we await the 2022 World Cup draw in a few week’s time.

The impressive performances of Daniel Ballard and Ali McCann in Vienna earnt them their second successive starts, with Boyce and Smith also retaining their places. Matthew Kennedy made his Northern Ireland debut in what turned out to a dead rubber. Hours before kick-off, UEFA announced that Romania would be awarded a 3-0 win for their postponed match against the Norway, who were prevented from travelling by their Government due to a positive Covid-19 test. This confirmed Northern Ireland’s relegation to League C for the next round Nations League season.

Northern Ireland started brightly as Ballard went close at the back post. Boyce, who again looked positive with a partner up front (this time Magennis), had two good opportunities in the first half. First, he was unable to divert a header on target from a Matthew Kennedy cross, before he volleyed over the bar from a pin-point Paddy McNair corner.

Northern Ireland v Romania Nations League 2020
Lining up for the National Anthems in front of a vitually empty South Stand

The second half also started brightly for Baraclough’s side, and it was yet another well-worked corner which brought fruitful produce in the 56th minute. McNair played it short to Michael Smith, who picked out Boyce excellently at the back post and he bundled the ball over the line, despite pressure from his marker. It was Boyce’s second international goal and his first in a competitive fixture.

As the game moved into the last third, the three games in short succession began to take its toll on the Northern Ireland eleven. Lewis, Washington, Conor McLaughlin and Galbraith were brought into the action in place of Kennedy, Boyce, Magennis and Smith. In many ways, these changes showed the extent to which the squad had been stretched to its limit during the international break with the Sunderland defender occupying a vacant central midfield position.

In what epitomised 2020 as a year for Northern Ireland, Romania drew level in the last 10 minutes when Tanase managed to pull away from Ballard and dragged the ball back to Bicfalvi who placed it into the bottom corner. Was the nutmeg of McNair intentional? Either way, that was the crucial pass that led to the goal.

Thankfully we held on for a point this time, unlike three days prior in Vienna. However, it was another disappointing night for Northern Ireland.

It cannot be denied that the squad has shown glimpses of promise. McCann, Ballard and Boyce all impressed when given a chance, whilst the likes of McNair, Dallas and Evans show consistency as ever, but it is vital that these glimpses translate into results in 2021.

FINAL SCORE

Northern Ireland 1 (Boyce 56)
Romania 1 (Bicfalvi 81)

NORTHERN IRELAND

Peacock-Farrell, Ballard, J.Evans, Cathcart, Dallas, McNair, Smith (Galbraith 79), McCann, Kennedy (Lewis 66), Magennis (C.McLaughlin 79), Boyce (Washington 67)

Subs not used: Flanagan, McGovern, R.McLaughlin, Whyte, Hazard

ROMANIA

Tatarusanu, Nedelcearu, Cristea, Tosca (Bicfalvi 74), Cretu (Mogos 64), Nistor, Marin, Paulino, Man (Maxim 64), Alibec (Baluta 87), Tanase (Ganea 87)

Subs not used: Balgradean, Mitrea, Puscas, Albu, Tiru, Lazar, Manea