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Northern Ireland: There is potential to rise again


Gut wrencher: Niall McGinn looks inconsolable after Austrians strike in last few seconds

Gut wrencher: Niall McGinn looks inconsolable after Austrians strike in last few seconds

Gut wrencher: Niall McGinn looks inconsolable after Austrians strike in last few seconds

The year started with Northern Ireland fans celebrating Michael O'Neill's decision in January to turn down Scotland and sign a new long-term contract with the Irish FA.

It ended with disappointment as Austria scored an injury-time winner to condemn O'Neill's side to FOUR defeats out of FOUR in the Nations League.

In between ex-Irish League heroes Paul Smith and Gavin Whyte provided some goalscoring highlights and youngsters Jamal Lewis and Bailey Peacock-Farrell started to establish themselves on the scene. Ultimately though 2018 won't go down as a vintage year for the Green and White Army.

In nine games Northern Ireland lost five times, drew twice and won a couple of friendlies at Windsor Park.

The successes came at home to South Korea in March with Smyth coming off the bench to net a cracker in a 2-1 triumph and against Israel in September when livewire substitute Whyte scored with his first touch in a 3-0 win.

There were 0-0 draws away to the Republic of Ireland and Panama when Northern Ireland should have emerged victorious, a 3-0 defeat in the heat of Costa Rica and the pointless campaign in UEFA's newest competition.

Losing home and away to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Austria and being relegated to the third tier was not what the supporters expected when O'Neill agreed his deal.

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The good news is that 2019 will matter a whole lot more and if O'Neill's players can learn from the painful moments of this year, there could be glorious days and nights to come.

In many ways last night's 2-1 defeat summed up Northern Ireland's Nations League campaign. They played well, created numerous openings but were eventually undone by a touch of quality after a sloppy error.

No wonder O'Neill cut a frustrated figure on the touchline as he watched Valentino Lazaro deliver a brilliant curling finish into the top corner in the final meaningful action of the match after the highly rated David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic set him up taking advantage of Stuart Dallas being caught in possession.

Dallas, one of Northern Ireland's best performers in 2018, had wanted to launch a last gasp attack in a bid to earn a dramatic triumph. Instead he was caught out and made pay.

West Ham star Arnautovic was the difference between the sides in Vienna and his star turn off the bench in Belfast gave Austria a lift when O'Neill's men were well on top after Corry Evans had equalised Xaver Schlager's earlier effort.

Class counts at this level.

And when mistakes are made they tend to be punished. Bosnia's Edin Dzeko was another high profile player in the Nations League to deliver telling blows to Northern Ireland.

So, what now for O'Neill and his team?

Well, it's back to club action for the players while the manager will assess and re-assess this defeat.

In 2018 O'Neill has asked Northern Ireland to play more on the front foot, press higher up the pitch and be more dynamic.

It's an exciting style but only truly works if there is an end product and too often that has been lacking.

On scores of occasions in the Nations League, Northern Ireland found themselves in promising advanced positions yet could not apply the goalden touch.

How they could do with a class finisher like Jacob Stockdale from another code in their ranks right now.

Against the Austrians they found the net through an unlikely source, the hard running Corry Evans, but it is the other more attacked minded stars who have to step up to the plate on a more consistent basis moving forward.

The draw for the European Championship qualifiers take place next month with the first games in March.

By then it is hoped that more of O'Neill's big hitters like Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Kyle Lafferty are playing regular club football so they can hit the ground running when the 2020 campaign kicks-off. Youngsters like Lewis and Peacock-Farrell will have more club experience and there will be a serious hunger and desire amongst all to re-create those magical feelings enjoyed from Euro 2016 qualification.

There was a flat feeling amongst the fans as they left Windsor Park last night but it should not be all doom and gloom despite the Nations League results.

There is potential in this Northern Ireland team.

They just have to start taking their chances, cut out the needless mistakes and it can be fulfilled.

Roll on 2019 and the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

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