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Graft but little craft as NI miss their finals chance

No happy ending for players who will look back on the one that got away

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So close: Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis show their frustration as the striker’s shot hit the post

So close: Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis show their frustration as the striker’s shot hit the post

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

So close: Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis show their frustration as the striker’s shot hit the post

Reality. It bites. Hard. Northern Ireland dared to dream again but this time there was no happy ending.

When the European Championship finals are on next summer, the Northern Ireland lads will be on their holidays or watching the games on television wondering what might have been.

And there will be plenty to wonder about following last night's hugely disappointing 2-1 defeat to Slovakia after extra time in the Euro 2020 play-off final at Windsor Park.

This was a golden chance for the nation to qualify for another major tournament to add to the list of 1958, 1982, 1986 and 2016 but Ian Baraclough's team failed to grasp it.

In a winner takes all decider at home to Slovakia, a decent international side but no more than that, Northern Ireland didn't play anywhere close to their best conceding two sloppy goals and missing opportunities when they presented themselves.

We wanted a night in November to savour. Instead it became one that will frustrate the lives out of the Northern Ireland players - and fans - for years to come.

Take the Slovakia goals for example. The first one early on was a shocker to concede - a gift for the visitors well before Christmas.

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Slovakia’s Michal Duris (left) celebrates scoring his side’s second goal

Slovakia’s Michal Duris (left) celebrates scoring his side’s second goal

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Slovakia’s Michal Duris (left) celebrates scoring his side’s second goal

 

George Saville attempted to head the ball back to Jonny Evans inside his own half but it went beyond the Leicester City defender and into space behind him which the onrushing Juraj Kucka exploited to the full.

When Evans turned he knew he was in trouble trailing in Kucka's wake and within seconds the Slovakian had calmly tucked home past Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

Then there was what turned out to be the winner in extra time when Evans, normally so reliable, presented the ball to Michal Duns and the Slovakian substitute smacked home at the near post exposing Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

In between there was plenty of graft from Baraclough's team but little craft to open up the visiting defence.

Despite that Northern Ireland ought to have equalised either side of the break after poor play from the visitors only for Niall McGinn and Conor Washington to fluff their lines.

While the quality was not in evidence at Windsor what you can never accuse this side of is a lack of effort and attitude.

This is a team that refuses to give up, that refuses to let their heads go down when things aren't going their way and they are a bunch of lads who refuse to give up on their dreams and yours.

You had Stuart Dallas carrying an arm injury from the first half and carrying the fight all night long all over the pitch. He started out at right-back and,I swear, in the space of 60 seconds in injury time he was playing left back, left wing, midfield and as a false nine! The guy is a machine.

Then there's Paddy McNair whose rampaging surge down the flank and drilled cross led to the own goal from Milan Skriniar on 87 minutes that kept Northern Ireland in the tie.

He drove forward with more energy than a six year-old on their birthday filled with chocolate cake and fizzy drinks and the roar from the Kop that greeted the equaliser was so loud you'd have thought the stand was packed rather than littered with a sprinkling of supporters.

Substitute Kyle Lafferty, who wore a tee shirt with a picture of him and his sister Sonia in the warm-up in tribute to his beloved sibling who sadly passed away earlier this month, hit the post in the 90th minute in Northern Ireland's best period of the game. So near yet so far.

Given that First Minister Arlene Foster was in the stadium we should have known the final would go to extra-time where the home side were hampered by injuries to Craig Cathcart and McNair. When the final whistle went, Northern Ireland players, including captain Steven Davis, sunk to the turf in despair.

There was dejection across the face of Baraclough on the touchline. He had hoped to join icons like Peter Doherty, Billy Bingham and Michael O'Neill in leading the Green and White Army to a major tournament. Not to be.

But for the coronavirus pandemic Stoke City's O'Neill, who famously guided the side to Euro 2016, would have been in charge for the play-offs.

Questions were asked about the appointment such as was Bara the best man for the job? He answered that with a penalty shoot-out success in Bosnia last month but couldn't seal the deal against Slovakia.

So what now? Well, Northern Ireland have two Nations League fixtures to fulfil in the coming days against Austria and Romania and then, inevitably, players will think about their futures.

Some Kings of Lyon may decide it is time to leave international football. If they exit we should salute them. This, though, was one that got away.


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