Belfast Telegraph

UEFA U21 qualifying: Mark Sykes delivers another win for Northern Ireland as play-off hopes slip away

By Gareth Hanna

Glenavon's Mark Sykes delivered a 1-0 win for Northern Ireland U21s in their final UEFA U21 Championship qualifying game against Slovakia at Windsor Park, although they narrowly missed out on a play-off place.

Northern Ireland still had a chance of making the play-offs at kick-off and their hopes were only ended with 30 minutes to play in Belfast, as Portugal snatched the final play-off place with a 4-2 win over Bosnia and Herzegovinia.

The Windsor win was not fruitless as it was enough for NI to leapfrog their opponents into second spot in Group 2 - a fitting end to a thrilling campaign.

It had always been a long-shot that NI would make the play-offs, a series of results having to fit together on the final day of qualification. Read more about the state of play and the permutations before Tuesday here.

Nonetheless, Ian Baraclough's boys crowned an astounding campaign with a thoroughly deserved victory and a celebration at Windsor Park in front of 5,462 supporters. Sykes provided the winning goal when he flicked in Jamie McDonagh's cross on 62 minutes.

Glenavon FC star and Northern Ireland U21 hero Mark Sykes reflects on his goal-scoring display against Slovakia and playing in front of a friendly crowd at Linfield's Windsor Park for a change... 💚⚪️

Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport on Tuesday, October 16, 2018

As fate would have it, the final whistle in Portugal sounded just as the cross was coming in for Northern Ireland's goal, their play-off hopes dashed just seconds before the ball hit the back of the net.

That didn't dampen the GAWA's spirits, nor should it have, as the support roared their lads through to the end of a stunning campaign.

NI had been denied a first half penalty when Paul Smyth looked to be brought down as he cut in from the left wing. After Slovakia's Laszlo Benes was dismissed for his second booking in the final minute of the first period, Derry City's Alistair Roy went close to opening the scoring, forcing a top class save when he was played through by the eye-catching Jordan Thompson.

Soon after, Sykes went one better and NI were able to see out their sixth victory from their 10 qualifying matches.

Here's all the action on a day of permutations as it happened:

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