- It’s Richard Petrie
- BBC Sport IS
The Nations League is not a favorite competition for Northern Ireland supporters.
Since the introduction of the international calendar in 2018, the first three editions have produced disappointments, with the team’s fans having to wait an incredible 15 games before winning to celebrate.
The 2-1 victory over Kosovo at Windsor Park in September 2022 represents Northern Ireland’s only win in 16 matches so far.
After failing to qualify for the Euro 2024 finals, manager Michael O’Neill will be hoping for better results in the autumn as his side play six League C games in September, October and November.
The draw for the 2024-25 edition of the Nations League will take place in Paris on Thursday, with Northern Ireland included. Pot 3 in North Macedonia, Slovakia and Cyprus.
Romania, Sweden, Armenia and Luxembourg do Pot 1Azerbaijan, Kosovo, Bulgaria and the Faroe Islands are likely to challenge O’Neill’s men. Pot 2and Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania or Gibraltar made Pot 4.
Ahead of the draw in France, BBC Sport NI takes a look back at a few, but very low-downs, from NI’s achievements in the competition. Things can, as they say, get better.
The first offensive campaign
The announcement of the first Uefa Nations League was welcomed by many in the football world as an alternative to meaningless games, an opportunity to play teams with similar groups and a backdoor route to the Euro finals.
The initial excitement went down a bit among Northern Ireland fans however their first campaign started with a 2-1 home defeat by Bosnia-Herzegovina in League B Group 3 on a Saturday afternoon in September 2018.
Edin Dzeko played his part by setting up Haris Duljevic’s opener, Elvis Saric grabbed a second, before Will Grigg pulled off a late consolation for the long-time hosts.
This was followed by a 1-0 loss against Austria in Vienna and then a 2-0 loss to Bosnia-Herzegovina thanks to Dzeko’s double.
A second home defeat in the series followed Michael O’Neill’s men’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Austrians in Belfast in November.
Corry Evans’ goal looked like it would give NI their first point of the campaign, but Valentino Lazaro’s strike broke Northern Ireland’s heart as he found the net with the final strike of the game.
Even before that, NI’s relegation to League C was confirmed, but they were later given a reprieve after Uefa decided to reschedule the competition for 2020-2021.
A decline is certain as the volatility continues
The first game of the 2020 Nations League competition got off to a good start as late arrival Gavin Whyte earned a 1-1 draw against Romania in Bucharest in manager Ian Baraclough’s first game.
The point earned in the Group B1 opener was particularly impressive as Northern Ireland played most of the game with 10 men following the dismissal of Josh Magennis in the 39th minute.
Any hopes of a turnaround in NI’s fortunes were brought down to earth with a blow in their next game as Erling Haaland’s inspired Norway put Baraclough’s men to the sword 5-1 on a September night to forget.
The match, which saw Steven Davis equal Pat Jennings’ record of 119 NI caps, was played in an empty Windsor Park as measures were still being taken to try to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The following month, 600 fans attended a 1–0 defeat of Austria at the National Stadium, which was followed by a defeat to Norway by the same scoreline, with Stuart Dallas scoring an own goal.
The performance didn’t pay off as Austria lost 2-1 but Baraclough’s men ended their campaign with a point in a 1-1 draw at home to Romania.
The latter could not prevent relegation to League C however, without a ‘get out of jail free’ from Uefa this time.
A long wait for success
With Baraclough still in charge, the third Nations League got off to a slow start for NI when they started in June 2022 in League C2 with a 1-0 defeat to Greece at Windsor Park.
Three days later, the men in green drew 0-0 in Cyprus to extend their unbeaten run at the tournament, and the tradition was halted four days later with a 3-2 defeat in Kosovo.
By then, Baraclough’s record as an international manager stood at just three wins and 10 defeats in 19 matches, and the early summer woes looked set to continue as his charges found themselves 2-0 away to the Cypriots in their last four games. within 10 days.
A goal from Paddy McNair and a stoppage time save from Jonny Evans secured the points and avoided a humiliating defeat at home.
Finally, at the 15th attempt – on September 24, 2022 – NI fans got a Nations League victory to celebrate, when they won 2-1 against Kosovo in Belfast.
Trailing 1-0 with eight minutes to go, Whyte found the lead, and two minutes into added time the same player turned the keeper as Magennis headed home the winner to ‘bring the house down’ on the South Belfast pitch.
A 3-1 defeat to Greece in Athens three days later ended the campaign, but Northern Ireland avoided a Group C encounter.
O’Neill and his team will be looking to improve the team’s record when the competition resumes in September.