Northern Ireland: The checkered history of their early summer internationals

By Richard PetrieBBC Sport NI
Stuart Dallas and Kyle Lafferty
Goalscorer Stuart Dallas and Kyle Lafferty celebrate NI's 1-0 win over Azerbaijan in June 2017

Early summer international games have been kind to Northern Ireland in recent years, with important wins in qualifying games against Azerbaijan, Estonia and Belarus - along with of course that never-to-be-forgotten odyssey at Euro 2016.

But fixtures the team have contested in the period encompassing late May and June have not always yielded such positive outcomes or provided such happy memories.

Player withdrawals and weakened squads, heavy defeats, fraught fixture meetings, goal droughts and playing in front of 500-plus spectators - all form part of the checkered history of this international window.

But one man's influence for the better is clear - Northern Ireland have only won four competitive qualifying fixtures during June - Michael O'Neill was manager for three of those and played in the other.

Qualifiers and tours, World Cups and goals record

Matches at this time of year outside of major tournaments are a relatively new concept in international footballing terms - it was not until 1977 that Northern Ireland played their first World Cup qualifier in June - a 1-0 defeat away to Iceland.

Two years later they lost 4-0 on the road to Denmark in their first qualifier for the European Championships and in 1980 then manager Billy Bingham led the national team on their first end-of-season tour - a three-game series against Australia.

Northern Ireland's greatest ever June result came in 1982 - the famous 1-0 victory over Spain - but that was to be the only win that they would enjoy out of eight matches played at the Spain and then Mexico 1986 World Cups.

On 22 May 1984 the final Home International Championship was secured with a 1-1 draw against Wales, Northern Ireland having also won the tournament four years previously.

1993 brought away wins over Lithuania (May) and Latvia (June) in World Cup qualifiers but there was disappointment in the first competitive home game to be played in the month of June - a 2-1 reverse at the hands of Latvia in Belfast in 1995.

Northern Ireland v Spain in 2003
Peter Kennedy and Damien Johnston shadow Sergio during the 0-0 draw with Spain in June 2003

With Sammy McIlroy at the helm, a 2-0 friendly defeat in Italy in June 2003 was followed by a plucky goal-less draw with mighty Spain at Windsor Park a few days later - those games part of the infamous 13-match run without scoring a goal.

The following year's Caribbean Tour under Lawrie Sanchez was most notable for the fact that David Healy equalled and then overtook Colin Clarke's NI goalscoring record, netting his 13th and 14th international goals in a win over Trinidad & Tobago.

Twelve months later Healy was on target from the penalty spot as Michael Ballack scored twice in Germany's 4-1 win at Windsor Park in a fixture arranged to celebrate the 125th anniversary of The Irish Football Association.

German players celebrate their 4-1 win over NI in front of the old Railway Stand in June 2005
German players celebrate their 4-1 win over NI in front of the old Railway Stand in June 2005

'Northern Ireland nil'

A late-May tour to the United States in 2006 and another in 2010 brought further defeats by Uruguay (1-0), Romania (2-0), Turkey (2-0) and Chile (1-0), with a 3-0 reverse at the hands of an Italy side managed by Marcello Lippi in June 2009 sandwiched in between.

This was followed by the ill-fated Dublin-based Nations Cup experiment in 2011 - a spate of absentees giving several fringe and Irish League players a chance to impress - but a 5-0 defeat by the Republic of Ireland and a 2-0 loss to Wales in front of just 529 spectators at the Aviva Stadium did little to boost morale.

"Those games were bizarre. It was an experiment that turned out to be a disaster - there was a distinct feeling that the games did not matter and there was a real end-of-season feel," said BBC Sport NI commentator Joel Taggart.

"It was an attempt to hark back to the days of the Home Internationals but there was an admission of defeat immediately after - a realisation that it would not work unless England were involved."

Northern Ireland v Wales in 2011
Rows of empty seats were the order of the day at NI's Nations Cup defeat by Wales in May 2011

Dutch drubbing, then a sea change

The absence of key players and an experimental line-up were again part and parcel of Michael O'Neill's second game in charge - a whopping 6-0 defeat by the Netherlands in Amsterdam on 2 June 2012.

An under-strength side proved no match for a Dutch outfit boasting the likes of Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Marc van Bommel et al.

Joel: "I felt sorry for Michael - it was his second game in charge but I believe it is a fixture he would not have wanted or taken on had he been given the choice.

"It was a tough watch. When you saw their squad and Northern Ireland's you could sense we were going to be cannon fodder for the Dutch, who were having their farewell game before heading to Euro 2012.

Wesley Sneijder
Wesley Sneijder and his Dutch team-mates put Niall McGinn's NI to the sword

Joel: "In some ways it was understandable that players would look at end-of-season friendlies and tours and think 'Do I really want to go on a two-week overseas tour at the end of a long, hard season?

"In 2006, 2009 and 2010 the standard of the squad for those games had been falling away and there was a lack of recognised big-name players.

"In the match against the Netherlands none of the 11 players who began that game started in Michael O'Neill's first competitive game - a 2-0 loss away to Russia three months later."

Despite coming out second best to Uruguay (1-0) and Chile (2-0) in their south American tour during late May and early June 2014, there was evidence of a sea change in these fixtures however as encouraging displays confirmed the O'Neill era was firmly embedded.

Joel: "Michael points to that tour in particular as a turning point - key in delivering messages to the players, showing them the vision and having some good conversations to help bring a sense of unity and cohesion to the squad - a much more positive experience all round."

Goal drought ends and 'avoiding June games at all costs'

Northern Ireland's unenviable record of having gone 10 YEARS since last scoring a goal in any late May-June match eventually came to an end in the unlikely setting of Crewe Alexandra's Stadium on 31 May 2015 as a Stuart Dallas strike earned a 1-1 draw in a friendly with Qatar.

Two weeks later, the side's first competitive fixture for 12 years in this international window saw O'Neill's men secure a significant 0-0 draw against Romania in a European Championship qualifier in Belfast.

Joel: "That was a big game for us - by that time we knew we were well in the mix for Euro 2016 but there was still always a worry around an important game like that because of the time of the season it was being played."

"Traditionally Irish FA officials had always been sent to fixture meetings after qualifying group draws were made with direct instructions to avoid having to play matches in June at all costs and if really necessary, then at least at home.

"The political and geographical landscape has changed though and that has led to more countries, therefore bigger groups and fixtures being decided by a computer, so June fixtures are unavoidable."

Euro 2016 and vital away wins

Northern Ireland's adventures at Euro 2016 have been well chronicled - a hugely memorable 2-0 win over Ukraine sandwiched between defeats to Poland and Germany, followed by a narrow defeat by Wales in the last 16.

The following year a Dallas goal two minutes into added time clinched a dramatic 1-0 World Cup qualifier win in Azerbaijan to keep the Northern Irish on track for the World Cup play-off spot they would secure later in the year.

Joel: "That Azerbaijan game was such a big one. It's one Michael and the squad had targeted in terms of picking up points away from home as they, Norway and the Czech Republic were all contesting the play-off place.

"It was played in probably the worst conditions you could ask for in terms of the heat and humidity but for the win to come in the way it did at the time it did was such a big result."

Josh Magennis
Substitute Josh Magennis scored NI's late winner in Estonia

2018 saw the return of the summer tour experience - a draw with Panama followed by losing to Costa Rica - then two June wins in the crucial Euro qualifiers away to Estonia and Belarus in 2019.

Goals by Conor Washington and Josh Magennis gave NI a 2-1 comeback win over the Estonians, while Paddy McNair's 86th-minute winner sealed a 1-0 victory over Belarus.

Joel: "Previously players almost had a ready made excuse for not playing well in these games as it was out of season and their fitness was maybe not the best, having finished their seasons in April in many cases and then not playing again until the start of June.

"Michael worked hard in changing the whole approach and mindset surrounding these fixtures - he got the players to buy into having the same level of preparation and commitment for June games as they would for September, October or March."

The new Northern Ireland manager - whoever that might be - will hope to be involved in June fixtures as part of the Euro 2021 finals next summer.

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