2020 was a mixed year for the Northern Ireland national football team, from the departure of Michael O’Neill to the play-off joy for both the men and women’s sides. It will be a year that many fans will want to forget, with the men’s national side only winning one game, but what a game to win.
The first major moment of the year came in March with the postponement of the UEFA Euro 2020 Play-offs for the men’s national side and this lead to the departure of Michael O’Neill who turned his focus onto his club job with Stoke City.
This meant that the biggest job in Northern Ireland football was up for grabs, and while there was not one candidate that everyone wanted to take over, it was the under 21 manager Ian Baraclough who was given the responsibility of progressing the Northern Ireland national football team.
For Baraclough’s first game in charge he faced Romania away from home in the UEFA Nations League. The visitors faced an uphill struggle after going behind after 25 minutes and Josh Magennis was sent off for a second yellow card after 38 minutes of play. However, substitute Gavin Whyte popped up with the equaliser in the 86th minute to get the GAWA their first point in the UEFA Nations League.
Baraclough would suffer his first defeat of his reign as Northern Ireland manager against Norway, where Erling Braut Haaland showed why he is one of the best players in the world helping his country to a convincing 5-1 away win against a much-changed Northern Ireland side.
A few days later it was time for the biggest game of Baraclough’s managerial career to date, the UEFA Euro 2020 Play-off Semi-Final against Bosnia and Herzegovina. He made a surprise selection in his starting XI, giving Niall McGinn his first international since the 2-0 home defeat to Germany in September 2019.
This decision worked out well for Baraclough after McGinn scored the equaliser after Northern Ireland went 1-0 early on in the match. This game would then go to a penalty shoot-out, a first for Northern Ireland. It was a nerve-wracking few minutes for Northern Ireland fans, but Liam Boyce stepped up to score the winning penalty after Peacock-Farrell showed his worth between the sticks.
This game also saw Steven Davis become the most capped Northern Ireland international of all time, beating the record of 119 appearances. The result definitely made it a night to remember for Davis, who has committed to taking part in the FIFA World Cup 2022 campaign.
The next international period would be a challenging one for Northern Ireland with defeat at home to Austria in the UEFA Nations League denting the confidence in the Northern Ireland camp. This game did see a debut for Ali McCann and yet another impressive performance from Daniel Ballard, showing the future of football for Northern Ireland.
An away tie against Norway followed and it was a much better performance from Northern Ireland despite defeat. This would also be the final game before the UEFA Euro 2020 Play-off final against Slovakia, who beat the Republic of Ireland in their semi-final.
Hopes were high for the play-off final but unfortunately, it wasn’t too be for the Green and White Army as Slovakia ran out winners after scoring an extra-time winner. It was a disappointing end to a very good campaign for Northern Ireland after being placed into a group with Germany and the Netherlands.
It was time for Northern Ireland to focus on the next campaign and that is the FIFA World Cup 2022 which qualifying begins in 2021. They will face Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania. It will a difficult group but Northern Ireland will be right up for it to try and mask the disappointment of failing to qualify for the past two major tournaments.
It is also worth giving a special mention to the Northern Ireland Women’s team who have reached the play-offs for the UEFA Euro 2021, where they will be one two-legged tie away from reaching their first-ever major finals.
My Northern Ireland Player of the Year is Stuart Dallas. He not only helped his club side Leeds United get promoted to the Premier League, but he has been impressive and a vital player of the team this season.
His versatility has been crucial for Northern Ireland as we have seen him play right-back, left-back, right-wing, left-wing and even in central midfield. He is a great servant for Northern Ireland and a potential captain in the future.
My Young Player of the Year is Daniel Ballard. The on-loan Blackpool defender had the difficult task to replace Jonny Evans and did a very impressive job of it. He is definitely going to be a big player in the future for Northern Ireland.