After a busy start to the week, I rather missed the opportunity to mark Northern Ireland’s startling 1-0 victory in Slovenia, in timely fashion. It’s fair to say I hadn’t expected the team to return from Maribor with all three points.
Although we rode our luck at times, credit where credit’s due, it was a gutsy performance at a notoriously tricky venue. The Slovenes seldom lose at home and it is even rarer that they should taste defeat in the Ljudski vrt Stadium.
Northern Ireland started brightly enough, but as the first half wore on, we enjoyed much less possession. Indeed the goalkeeper and the back four, who withstood an onslaught, were largely responsible for the victory. The midfield and forwards provided their defensive colleagues only brief respite from waves of Slovenian attacks.
On so many occasions similar rearguard actions have resulted in either hard luck stories or another 0-0 draw. At half-time I’m sure most supporters expected the same. Yet when Kyle Lafferty and Corry Evans entered the fray on 67 minutes, the former seemed the better bet to instigate a smash and grab.
The Fermanagh man certainly made an instant impression, providing a target for passes and holding up the ball. But it was Evans who scored the winner three minutes later, tapping in a perfect cross from fellow debutant, Craig Cathcart.
Predictably Slovenia piled on the pressure after that. It was hairy at times, but if it’s one of those nights for Northern Ireland the goal-line simply becomes impenetrable.
Of course, getting off to a perfect start will inflate expectations before games against Italy and the Faroe Islands. Four points from those two matches would be a great return. Personally I remain as pessimistic as ever and it would not surprise me one iota, if following our impressive and unprecedented opening away win, we lose against Brian Kerr’s minnows on the next overseas trip.
It would be quite in keeping with Northern Ireland’s unpredictable reputation.
As for the manager, I’m still a sceptic, but to notch three points away, against credible opposition, is one accomplishment to which his predecessor, Lawrie Sanchez, cannot lay claim. Of course, Sanchez twice masterminded wins against football royalty, England and Spain. Worthington gets a chance to emulate those achievements when we play Italy on October 8th.
However it affects the rest of the campaign, and qualification is not yet a realistic expectation, a win in Slovenia was a notable result in itself. Even during the glory years, Northern Ireland’s away record was often our Achilles heal. We should certainly enjoy it and hope that the next decent victory on our travels doesn’t take another sixteen years to arrive.