When time was finally called on Northern Ireland’s two-year pursuit of a second successive European Championship appearance Kyle Lafferty dropped to his knees and wept. One week after the death of his 41-year-old sister, Sonia, the striker stepped off the bench and almost reprised his role as his country’s saviour in Euros qualification. It was not to be. There was only heartache for Ian Baraclough and his players at Windsor Park.
“The worst I’ve ever felt after a game,” was how the new Northern Ireland manager put it. The 1,060 fans allowed inside Windsor for the play-off final against Slovakia will no doubt concur. It was a tight, fraught night; the kind Northern Ireland have relished in recent years and looked to have embraced once again when Paddy McNair forced Milan Skriniar to put through his own net in the 87th minute. That cancelled out Juraj Kucka’s first half goal for the visitors and appeared to swing the tie in the hosts’ favour in extra time.
Lafferty transformed Northern Ireland as an attacking threat with his hold-up and link-up play after his late introduction. In the 90th minute he beat Slovakia keeper Marek Rodak from 20 yards only for his low shot to rebound off the post. The momentum stayed with Northern Ireland until the 110th minute when Kucka’s pass bounced into the path of Michal Duris off Jonny Evans’s backside. Duris broke into space on the right and beat Bailey Peacock-Farrell too easily at his near post.
Slovakia’s opener had also came from a defensive lapse from Baraclough’s team, who pressed, harried and hauled their way back into contention as players dropped through injury during extra time. They bombarded the Slovakia penalty area once again in the final minutes.
Evans, free inside the area, headed straight at Rodak with the last act of an absorbing contest. It would be the last act of a long, tumultuous qualifying campaign for Northern Ireland.
Baraclough said of Lafferty: “It shows the magnitude of the guy that he wants to do so well for his country and it must have been so tough to make a decision like that so soon after such a sad loss. But the character was there for all to see.
“George Saville has had to deal with issues in the lead-up. Stuart Dallas injured his arm in the game but wouldn’t give up. Others went down with cramp. But they gave absolutely everything.”
Northern Ireland produced purposeful spells during normal and extra time without turning pressure into clear-cut opportunity. Slovakia were far more clinical in adding Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland on their list of conquests en route to Euro 2020.
The visitors absorbed early pressure as Northern Ireland made a determined start and gradually gained the upper hand with more intelligent attacking play. Marek Hamsik took control of midfield and sprayed dangerous passes behind the home full-backs while false No 9 Ondrej Duda drew centre-halves Evans and Craig Cathcart out of position regularly. The breakthrough was fairly calamitous from a home perspective, however.
Saville headed a cross-field ball back towards his defence under little pressure but unaware that Evans had also stepped out to intercept. The communication mix-up was punished in style by Kucka who, sent through on goal by the wayward header, beat Peacock-Farrell with a clinical and calm finish inside the keeper’s right hand post.
Euro 2020 draw
Group A Turkey, Italy, Wales, Switzerland
Group B Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Russia
Group C Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, N Macedonia
Group D England, Croatia, Scotland, Czech Rep
Group E Spain, Sweden, Poland, Slovakia
Group F Hungary, Portugal, France, Germany
Provisional fixtures and venues can be viewed here.
Northern Ireland created little in the first half other than Niall McGinn almost deceiving Rodak with a deep cross and shooting over from 20 yards after pouncing on a loose pass from Stanislav Lobotka. Their pressing, intensity and creativity had to improve and the second half brought the necessary recovery.
Conor Washington drew the first genuine save from Rodak when McGinn stole possession and broke towards the Slovakian box. The winger’s final ball was behind Washington but he dug out a shot straight at the Fulham goalkeeper.
Baraclough rang the changes in a desperate search for an equaliser.
Lafferty, the hero of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, almost rolled back the years when he was inches away from connecting with Jamal Lewis’s cross. He also released Dallas into the area with a delightful flick but time and chances were running away from Northern Ireland when their late pressure finally paid off.
McNair burst past two tired Slovakian challenges on the right, reached the by-line and aimed a low cross towards Liam Boyce at the near post.
The otherwise excellent Skriniar had to intervene but succeeded only in steering the ball into his own net. Windsor Park erupted and Lafferty was so close to conjuring a stunning victory and emotional script with his 90th minute drive against the post.
The momentum appeared with Northern Ireland in extra time but one more lapse, one more clinical strike from Slovakia, and it was all over.