In Rotterdam, a draw for Northern Ireland against the mighty Netherlands would have been regarded as a spectacular result but there was a sense of sheer disappointment and missed opportunity at Saturday night’s goalless stalemate with the Dutch in Belfast.
Inspirational skipper Steven Davis, on his 116th appearance for his country which made him the UK’s most capped midfielder — overtaking David Beckham — missed a first-half penalty, blazing the ball over the bar.
The Netherlands, who for only the third time in 19 matches under Ronald Koeman failed to score, have qualified for their first major tournament since 2014, while Northern Ireland must be content with next March’s play-offs, the draw for which comes in Bucharest later this month.
It was a valiant effort from the men in green, sporting their new retro style home tops on what will likely be Michael O’Neill’s farewell match after joining Stoke City as boss last week.
But on a crisp November night, they couldn’t find the goal that would have gained revenge for the agony in Rotterdam and sadly it was the skipper, who has gifted Northern Ireland so many wonderful memories, who failed to be clinical when it mattered.
O’Neill, who had promised much more attacking intent at Windsor Park, started Cardiff City winger Gavin Whyte, reverting Stuart Dallas to right back with Michael Smith reduced to a role on the bench. Northern Ireland’s goal hero in Rotterdam, Josh Magennis, won the battle for the starting attacker’s role with Kyle Lafferty acting as substitute.
Koeman made three changes, two enforced, from the first game with Quincy Promes, Joel Veltman and Donny van de Beek coming into his side.
After his recent bout of flu, Liverpool’s Gini Wijnaldum had to settle for a place on the bench along with Denzel Dunfries while Memphis Depay was ruled out entirely due to his ongoing hamstring issue.
In an explosive opening from the hosts, Corry Evans couldn’t quite direct the ball into the net or to a team-mate after keeper Jasper Cillessen failed to control a backpass; Magennis saw a glancing header just go inches wide after a delectable cross from Paddy McNair; and George Saville had a thunderous shot blocked following a poor punch from the Valencia No.1.
It was clear, with Dallas an offensive weapon from right back and Whyte’s tenacity down the wing, allied with McNair’s wonderful deliveries, they were attempting to exploit the vulnerable Daley Blind at every opportunity.
The Dutch, with their first effort on goal on 10 minutes, struck the bar through Steven Berghuis after a pull back from Promes but the men in orange were largely reduced to long range efforts and becoming exasperated with Northern Ireland’s resilient defending.
Atalanta’s Martin de Roon, fresh from playing Manchester City in the Champions League, was the first player to be booked, bringing down a rampaging McNair in the centre circle.
With a draw enough for the Dutch to qualify, the Oranje were keen to slow the game down and the crowd let Koeman know how ironic this was considering his critical outburst following the game in Rotterdam.
The drama intensified on the half hour mark when yet another tantalising cross from McNair, was met by Saville with the ball appearing to strike the arm of Veltman.
Polish referee Szymon Marciniak immediately booked the Ajax full back and, despite vocal protestations led by skipper Virgil van Dijk, the official somewhat harshly awarded a penalty.
Inexplicably though, Davis struck his spot kick over the bar.
The miss seemed to unnerve the Rangers ace, despite every effort to shake it off. Three of his last four goals for his country had come from the spot.
The relieved Netherlands, realising they’d dodged a bullet, attempted to storm the Northern Ireland rearguard but when they were thwarted, they were left to long range efforts with Blind blasting over the bar before Koeman brought on Brighton’s Davy Propper for the ineffective de Roon.
Davis was booked for a late foul five minutes from the interval – borne more out of frustration than misjudgement.
He was still linking up with McNair and Whyte down the right but, as on so many occasions, coming up against a world class defensive pairing in van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt, it was extremely difficult to find their man in the box.
Just as in Rotterdam, Northern Ireland’s defensive structure during the first-half was so solid that goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell barely had a save to make, despite a few close shaves.
At the start of the second-half, after a Jamal Lewis cross, Magennis couldn’t adjust quickly to direct his header goalwards but then Northern Ireland were suddenly swamped largely in their own half — hardly surprising against the 12th best side in the world.
Sustained pressure was always coming when the team is packed full of Champions League talent.
However, poor ball retention from the home team and nice interplay from the Dutch allowed the Oranje to attack at will but their only real effort of note during this period was when Ryan Babel outjumped Craig Cathcart and his powerful low header was well saved by Peacock-Farrell.
In an effort to move Dallas to the left wing, O’Neill utilised his first substitution on 58 minutes, bringing on Hearts right back Smith for Saville.
Koeman then introduced the man who scored Holland’s agonising go-ahead goal in Rotterdam, Luuk de Jong, and seconds later, Cathcart had to powerfully intercept a dangerous Blind cross before it fell to the replacement inside the six-yard box.
Niall McGinn became the 20th player to win 60 or more caps for Northern Ireland when he took over from Corry Evans for just over the last quarter of the game.
O’Neill’s men continued to be defensively astute as the Dutch failed to turn their large possession count into clear goalscoring opportunities.
With 10 minutes to go, the hosts threw on Blackpool midfielder Jordan Thompson for Lewis, with Dallas asked to play his fourth position of the night, slotting into the left back role.
Both teams toiled to break the deadlock but neither really threatened — despite plenty of endeavour from the men in green.
This was the Netherlands’ first game in Belfast since October 1977 and, with qualification for Euro 2020 secure following this draw, they celebrated as if they had won the game just as they had done 42 years ago.
On Saturday night’s showing, however, they’ll be happy to wait another 40-odd years before returning.
For boss O’Neill, it wasn’t the big scalp he craved or a final game showdown in Frankfurt with Germany — but a deserved draw with the Dutch, in the cold light of day, is not a bad way to see out his last game at Windsor Park.
Here's how the game unfolded: