Northern Ireland claimed their first-ever Nations League victory as late strikes from Josh Magennis and Gavin Whyte completed a dramatic 2-1 comeback win over Kosovo at a rapturous Windsor Park.
Ian Baraclough’s side looked set to ensure more heartache in the Nations League when captain Vedat Muriqi fired Kosovo into a lead before the hour, moments after Dion Charles was denied an opener for the hosts.
But Northern Ireland rose through the adversity with a spirited late turnaround as the inspirational Whyte equalised before setting up Magennis for his stoppage-time winner nine minutes later.
The long-awaited victory sees Northern Ireland claim three points in the Nations League for the first time at the 15th attempt, moving clear of the immediate threat of relegation to the bottom tier.
How Northern Ireland overcame Kosovo
After a miserable run of results in June had left his side in a perilous position, Baraclough had sought to inject optimism this week, talking up the return of key players who missed those summer fixtures.
It was reflected on a team sheet which showed eight changes from the 2-2 draw with Cyprus here three-and-a-half months ago, with Jamal Lewis making his first appearance since last November and the likes of Corry Evans, Tom Flanagan and Magennis back in the fold.
But there was no Conor McMenamin on the teamsheet, and less than an hour before kick-off the Irish FA announced the 27-year-old, who only made his debut in June, had been sent home after a video emerged appearing to show the Glentoran winger singing a pro-IRA slogan.
- Jamal Lewis made his first Northern Ireland start in 10 months as he came into Ian Baraclough’s side to face Kosovo at Windsor Park.
- Forward Dion Charles made his first ever start in international football as he won his 12th cap, partnering Josh Magennis who returned to the side having missed June’s fixtures.
- Jonny Evans started in defence to move on to 99 caps, one of only three players in the side who started Northern Ireland’s last game – a 2-2 draw with Cyprus three and a half months ago.
- Conor McMenanin followed Kyle Lafferty to become the second Northern Ireland player to be withdrawn from the Nations League squad after the IFA were made aware of a historical video.
That came a day after Kyle Lafferty had been sent home amid an investigation by his club Kilmarnock into a video appearing to show him using alleged sectarian language.
The miserable mood continued as Kosovo, 3-2 winners over Northern Ireland in Pristina earlier this year, threatened early on.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell could not hold Florent Muslija’s shot and was grateful to see Milot Rashica scuff the follow-up, before then denying Rashica again and seeing Fidan Aliti hook a shot over.
It took 15 minutes for Northern Ireland to threaten, with Betim Fazliji almost turning the ball into his own net after Magennis sent Paddy McNair’s cross goalwards.
There was a better chance shortly before the break as Dion Charles – making his first start as he won a 12th cap – broke clear of Fazliji but then placed his shot too close to goalkeeper Ari Muric – the man who keeps Peacock-Farrell on the bench at Burnley.
At the start of the second half George Saville slipped the ball through to Conor Bradley, who neatly turned inside to get away from his defender but then could not get enough power into a left-footed shot.
Charles had the ball in the net in the 55th minute after Saville played a ball down the middle, but the Bolton striker was denied his first international goal as he was well offside.
And it got much worse for Northern Ireland just three minutes later as Kosovo’s record goalscorer Muriqi found the bottom corner with a crisp shot from the edge of the area.
Northern Ireland rallied. Muriqi blocked Jonny Evans’ header on the line, then Muric kept out a looping effort from Magennis.
Peacock-Farrell then made a vital save to deny Muriqi what would have been the killer blow, and moments later Northern Ireland were level as Shayne Lavery, just on as a substitute, wriggled free of Fazliji and ran towards goal, finding traffic but squaring the ball for fellow replacement Whyte to fire home.
Peacock-Farrell made another save to deny Zymer Bytyqi and Magennis capitalised at the end.
Northern Ireland break Nations League duck – Opta stats
- Northern Ireland have won their first ever UEFA Nations League games, having failed to win any of their first 14 fixtures in the competition (D4 L10).
- Northern Ireland have their first victory since a 3-1 win against Luxembourg in March, and their first victory on home soil since beating Lithuania in November 2021. Indeed, that’s now just their second win in their previous 15 home internationals (D6 L7).
- Northern Ireland’s Gavin Whyte netted his fifth international goal, and his first at home since doing so on his debut against Israel in September 2018. He’s also the first player for the nation to score and assist as a substitute since Kyle Lafferty against San Marino in October 2016.
- Northern Ireland’s Josh Magennis netted his 10th international goal, with two goals in his last three appearances for the national team, as many as in his previous 22 appearances.
Northern Ireland go to Greece on Tuesday in the final Nations League game of their Group C2 campaign. The game in Athens kicks off at 7.45pm.
Source : Sky Sports