Unfortunately, for the 1,060 GAWA in attendance and the tens of thousands watching from the confines of their own homes, it wasn’t to be. For moments, it looked as though a carbon copy of the Bosnia game was going to be produced to secure Northern Ireland’s place at Euro 2020 (in 2021). In the end, defensive mistakes cost Baraclough’s side in a close encounter at Windsor Park.
We, for the first time under Baraclough, correctly predicted the line-up for the game, as McGinn, Washington and Magennis were preferred in the attacking options. The recent first choices in defence and midfield remained.
Northern Ireland started brightly, which was so important given the unhelpful trend of conceding first and early under Baraclough to date. However, the trend continued as a poorly executed George Saville header, which was meant to fall at Jonny Evans’ feet, fell instead to Slovakia’s Kucka. Already a yard up on Evans, he couldn’t be caught and duly slotted the ball into the back of net.
There was an injury scare for Dallas as he looked to have suffered an injury to his arm, but he continued on in true Stuart Dallas style – going on to play in various positions as the game progressed.
We started the second half strongly but clear cut chances were lacking. It wasn’t until the 87th minute, after the introduction of Thompson, Whyte, Lafferty and Boyce, that there was a real sight on goal. McNair stormed down the right hand side and looked to play the ball across the six yard box. Instead of a green shirt, Skriniar turned the ball into his own net. 1-1 and game on! The GAWA didn’t care how it ended up there; our chance to watch our team at the Euros once more had been rejuvenated.
For the rest of normal time, Northern Ireland pressed forward, looking for a winner. After a very tough week for his family, Lafferty nearly finished the game in a way that would have only been fitting to describe as being written in the stars. From around 20 yards out, Lafferty struck the ball thunderously but the post denied him his 21st international goal.
As the game entered extra time, the volume of football began to show on some of the squad. Cathcart and McNair were replaced, due to injury, by Flanagan and Ferguson. Again, clear cut chances were hard to come by for Northern Ireland as the tactic seemed to be lumping it long and hoping for a well-placed flick on.
With 110 minutes on the watch, the Slovaks broke away and Duris first beat Evans, after an unfortunate deflection against the Leicester City man, before getting the better of Peacock-Farrell at his near post. We’ve seen him save much more difficult efforts before in a Northern Ireland shirt. 2-1 to the visitors with Northern Ireland only having a matter of minutes to try and draw level again.
The balls kept coming forward in the closing stages but the best sight on goal was a tame header from Evans which hardly troubled the Slovakia keeper.
After three minutes of added time, the German referee brought the game to an end, signifying an end to Northern Ireland’s hopes of participating in our second successive European Championships.
It’s a disappointing statement to make but the aftermath of the game very much felt like an end of an era for this squad. Time will tell, and any decisions are unlikely to be made prior to the games against Austria and Romania, but there may well be some retirements before the end of the year. If there is, Baraclough’s job becomes much harder, and his quest will be more of a rebuilding job going forward.
It is certainly difficult to see like-for-like replacements for the key players – Davis, Evans, Cathcart, etc – coming through. However, if there is anyone that knows the talent of the underage squads, it is Baraclough.
The results in the next two games will not take away the pain of missing out on a golden opportunity to play at Euro 2020. However, a win or two, or even positive performances, would release the pressure somewhat on Baraclough. He desperately needs to begin to build some momentum as we look towards the next challenge: qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
Northern Ireland 1 (Skriniar og 87)
Slovakia 2 (Kucka 17, Duris 110)
(after extra time)
Peacock-Farrell, Dallas, Cathcart (Flanagan 99), J.Evans, Lewis, McGinn (Lafferty 77), McNair (Ferguson 104), Davis, Saville (Thompson 66), Magennis (Whyte 66), Washington (Boyce 77)
Subs not used: C.McLaughlin, McGovern, McCann, Smith, Ballard, Hazard
Rodak, Pekarik, Satka, Skriniar, Hubocan, Lobotka (Hrosovsky 65), Rusnak (Gyomber 118), Kucka, Hamsik (Gregus 105), Mak (Duris 65), Duda (Mraz 85)
Subs not used: Pauschek, Valjent, Suslov, Mazan, Jakubech, Safranko, Greif