Has Northern Ireland undone all their hard work in Euro qualifiers?

The recent football history of the Northern Ireland national team has followed a pattern that oscillates between signs of promise and immense frustration. The dark days when they went 13 matches without scoring appear to be long gone, but the prospect of qualification for their first major tournament since 1986 remains elusive. Their failure to get over the line in recent years has usually been attributable to a moment that swung the pendulum of power away from them. In the Euro 2008 qualifiers, Northern Ireland actually led the group until the departure of Lawrie Sanchez and a disastrous four days that contained back-to-back losses in Latvia and Iceland. Leading 0-1 in Poland in September 2009, Martin Paterson missed a one-on-one opportunity that needed to go in. A second goal and the Poles would have crumbled. As it was, they scrambled a late equaliser. Fortress Windsor fell to the slick, skilful Slovaks four days later, and that was that.

So after such a positive start to the current campaign, with a superb 0-1 victory in Slovenia, backed up by a well-earned draw at home to Italy, one cannot help but question if the events of their last two games are the repetition of history at work. The Faroe Islands are the sort of side who anyone with even vague hopes of qualification need to be taking six points from, with relatively little complication. That the 1-1 draw of 20 years earlier was a repeated scoreline, and that the Faroes actually led the game for ten minutes or so, suggests that the failure to string what one would see as positive results together remains something of an institutional problem.

If Northern Ireland was two points ahead of schedule as a result of Corry Evans’ strike in the opener, then this was a cheap and disappointing way to flush that advantage down the proverbial. The behind closed doors game in Belgrade on Friday was an opportunity to regain some momentum in an ‘away’ match minus the usual intimidating atmosphere that comes with a trip to Eastern Europe. There is no doubt that on the balance of play Serbia deserved the points, but what will be most disappointing to Nigel Worthington and his team will be that they allowed a winning position at half time to become a losing one when it most mattered, for a draw would still have constituted a good result.

The consolation is that Group C is one that has already seen its share of surprising results, most notably the Serbs’ unexpected 1-3 loss to Estonia on home soil. Northern Ireland still has two matches with Estonia to play, and one gets the feeling that four points will be an absolute minimum requirement from these crucial encounters, followed by victories in their other home games against Slovenia (up next), the Serbs and the Faroes. This would put Northern Ireland on 18 points with only a trip to Udine to face the small matter of Italy away. The sensible money would have to be against them gaining a positive result from that engagement, so the pressure to put points on the board here and now could not be more evident. Anything other than a win over the Slovenians on Tuesday and it may be over.

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