It began with a Dion Charles goal in a 2-0 win, and concluded with a Dion Charles goal in a 2-0 win – but with so much in between.
When Charles secured a comfortable victory against Group H minnows San Marino in March, Northern Ireland supporters hoped it would ignite a genuine push for Euro 2024 qualification. After all, Michael O’Neill, the architect of their joyous journey to France in 2016, was back at the helm for a second term.
However, eight months later, Charles’ goal nine minutes from time at Windsor Park on Monday night sealed a 2-0 win over Denmark that, in practical terms, did little more than ensure a positive end to what was a dreadful qualifying campaign.
It felt like the post-mortems on this failed qualification bid, marred by an injury crisis that tore the heart out of O’Neill’s side for much of the campaign, had almost all been written before the group-winning Danes arrived in Belfast.
Undoubtedly, though it had no impact on the final Group H standings for either team – Northern Ireland was destined to finish fifth regardless of the result, having lost seven of their nine outings – Monday night’s morale-boosting win added a more upbeat tone to a deflating narrative.
“Look, I’m not going to get carried away,” reflected O’Neill afterward.
“We have an awful lot of work to do with this team. Tonight was a step in the right direction, and we have to keep taking steps in the right direction.”
With long-term injuries to influential players such as captain Steven Davis and Stuart Dallas forcing O’Neill to rely on a very young and inexperienced squad throughout this qualifying campaign, he continuously emphasized the importance of giving the youngsters time to grow into international footballers.
After having to explain three crushing 1-0 home defeats by Finland, Kazakhstan, and Slovenia, Monday night provided him with the opportunity to reflect on Northern Ireland beating a nation 56 places above them in the world rankings – albeit missing key players and having already secured their passage to the finals three days earlier.
O’Neill was also able to enjoy a rocking Windsor Park once again for the majority of the second half, a sight not fully witnessed since the successful nights of the manager’s first reign.
“It’s great to see the stadium full,” he said. “We want to be a team that people get behind, that they enjoy seeing. When we were at our best, home form was massive to us, and it’s going to be massive again going forward.
“I know what it means to people here and what it means to win here. It’s been a challenging campaign for me. I’ve had to look at myself. Are we doing the right things? I believe we are.
“It might not show at this moment in time, but hopefully this gives us a glimpse of what maybe lies ahead.”
‘Perhaps lots of possession doesn’t suit us’
Interestingly, if Monday night was a glimpse into the future, and with O’Neill being open about thinking about how best for his team to play, then the shape the team was set up in against Denmark could be one he deploys more often.
He admitted he had set the team up in a defensive manner, acknowledging that it might not be easy at home and potentially difficult for the crowd to accept, but it may be a way to achieve success.
“For 40 minutes in the game on Friday [a 4-0 loss to Finland in Helsinki], we played in a similar way, and I was pleased with that. The problem is when we go behind, how we manage that and how you deal with that.
“When you go ahead, it energizes you and gives you something to hang on to, something to protect. We have to recognize when we play teams of a certain level; this is how we’re going to have to play.”
He added, “We have to look back at the earlier games in the group when we had quite a lot of possession, and maybe that doesn’t suit us.
“Maybe we play better as a counter-attacking team. Those are all things we’re trying to work out with this group of players.”