7 December 2014

Northern Ireland in Friendly Internationals

Friendlies

Friendly internationals (or "International Challenge Matches" as they are now officially advertised) have become quite maligned in recent times, with mass squad withdrawals and multiple substitutions often making a mockery of them as spectacles. It wasn't always so, indeed the first internationals were all friendlies, with the first "competitive" international matches not held until the International Championship was founded in 1884.

Friendly refers to non-competitive matches held outside of the World Cup, European Championships, British Championships, or in the handful of minor tournaments in which Northern Ireland have competed.  The term non-competitive for all but the most recent friendly matches does them a disservice. Who is to say that Ireland facing England or Wales in the 1880s, or more recently Northern Ireland facing national powerhouses such as Uruguay, (West) Germany, Italy and France could be anything other than "competitive"!

Aside from their first four matches (two each against England and Wales in 1882 and 1883), Ireland seldom played friendlies prior to the appointment of Peter Doherty as manager in 1951. So rare and unregarded were the majority of Ireland's pre-Second World War friendlies, that they were often ignored by lists of internationals, although they did (and do) meet the criteria of official international matches.

Friendly Record 1882-1951
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
4
0
1
3
2
19
-17
Away
5
0
1
4
4
22
-18

Notable matches:
1882 vs England (Ireland's first international)
1883 vs Wales (Ireland claim a 1-1 draw, avoiding defeat for the first time)
1902 vs Scotland (Ibrox Disaster fundraiser)
1922 vs Norway (Ireland's first match outside the British Isles)
1951 vs France (Ireland's final match prior to the appointment of their first manager)

With the Home Nations re-joining FIFA after the War, and consequently entering the World Cup for the first time, they began to look outside of the British Isles more regularly for opponents. In 1951 Ireland played France in Belfast, their first "foreign" opposition since  meeting the same team in 1928. The following year, they played a return match in Paris. Still friendlies were a rare thing, with the next match, against Italy, an accident of the weather. Later friendly matches under Doherty proved a bit of a hard lesson for a team that was in decline after the 1958 World Cup.

Friendly Record 1951-1962
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
1
0
1
0
2
2
0
Away
4
0
0
4
5
16
-11

Notable matches:
1957 vs Italy (downgraded World Cup qualifier)
1962 vs Netherland (Doherty's last match as manager)

By the 1960s Northern Ireland appeared to be embracing friendlies as a regular and worthwhile venture, so much so that the regular fielding of strong elevens against the British Army and touring selections fell by the wayside. 1966 brought particularly rich pickings, as West Germany and Mexico arrived in Belfast for World Cup warm-up matches.

Friendly Record 1962-1968 
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
3
2
0
1
10
5
5
Away
1
1
0
0
3
2
1

Notable matches:
1966 vs Mexico (Billy Johnston become Northern Ireland's first substitute, scoring in the process)

The outward looking 1960s made way for a turbulent 1970s for football in Northern Ireland as the Troubles took hold. Teams refused to travel to Belfast, and even away friendlies were rare, just two in the whole decade - a low key draw in Israel and a humiliation at the hands of World Champions, West Germany.

Friendly Record 1970-1979
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Away
2
0
1
1
1
6
-5

The 1980s opened with talk of a glamour friendly that would mark the Irish FA's Centenary, with a visit by Brazil mooted. Although no such match materialised, Billy Bingham made good use of a three game tour of Australia as he built the squad's spirit ahead of a successful World Cup qualifying campaign. Friendlies remained rare by modern standards; a single match in France augmenting the British Championship as warm-ups for the 1982 World Cup Finals. Even with the abandonment of the British Championships in 1984, Northern Ireland friendlies were still rare. Israel visited Belfast in 1984 and Bingham arranged a "tactical try-out" match against Spain in 1985. It wasn't until the build-up to the 1986 World Cup Finals that Northern Ireland played three friendlies in a year for only the second time.

Friendly Record 1980-1986
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
3
2
1
0
6
2
4
Away
6
2
3
1
5
7
-2

The glory era of the early-1980s faded rapidly. For their first post-Mexico 86 friendly, Bingham wasn't even able to take charge of the side as they travelled to Israel due to his connections with Saudi Arabia. There was an attempt to blood new talent which, while producing some good friendly results, failed to translate to successful tournament qualifications. Still, Northern Ireland made less use of friendlies than their near-neighbours.

Friendly Record 1987-1993
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
6
2
2
2
7
6
1
Away
4
0
2
2
4
6
-2

Notable matches:
1989 vs Chile (a record low 2,500 attendance for an international match  at Windsor Park)
1990 vs Uruguay (a 1-0 win over World Cup-bound Uruguay who defeated England four days later)
1992 vs Germany (a 1-1 draw with reigning World Champions)

With Bryan Hamilton's appointment as manager, Northern Ireland undertook more regular friendly matches (with an added "minor tournament" participation in the Canada Cup) than they had played before. Of the five sides that visited Windsor Park in Hamilton's four year reign, none could be said to be minnows, and results were more than respectable. Long distance trips away from home were less fruitful, and for the first time saw the selection of some incredibly inexperienced squads, a sneak-peek at what was to come.

Friendly Record 1994-1997
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
5
2
1
2
7
5
2
Away
2
0
1
1
0
2
-2
Neutral
2
0
0
2
0
5
-5

Notable matches:
1994 vs Romania (an impressive 2-0 win against a team that would reach the World Cup quarter-finals)
1996 vs Germany (Northern Ireland avoid defeat for the fifth consecutive match against the Germans, who would go on to win Euro 96)
1997 vs Thailand (Northern Ireland's only ever match in Asia)

During Lawrie McMenemy's two years as Northern Ireland manager, their friendly results far outshone their competitive ones.  At home there were wins over Slovakia and Switzerland, a disappointing draw with Canada and a "moral victory" defeat by World Champions France. Away from Windsor, there was a heavy defeat by Spain that highlighted rifts between players and management, before a weakened Northern Ireland recorded their first away win against the Republic of Ireland in a charity match for the Omagh Bomb Fund.

Friendly Record 1998-1999
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
4
2
1
1
3
2
1
Away
2
1
0
1
2
4
-2

Notable matches:
1999 vs Republic of Ireland (in aid of the Omagh Fund, Northern Ireland's first away win in Dublin)
1999 vs France (the World Cup trophy visited Belfast in the company of the World Champions)

Friendlies proved a happy start for Sammy McIlroy's international management career, with David Healy recording four goals in his first four matches. Later, friendlies became less happy occurrences for Northern Ireland with the sectarian targeting of Neil Lennon marring matches against Norway and Cyprus. On the field, results were also poor, a 4-1 reverse by Poland (in Cyprus), a 0-0 draw in Liechtenstein and a 5-0 defeat in a "celebration" match against Spain among the nadirs as squad withdrawals became very common.

Friendly Record 2000-2003
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
6
0
1
5
1
13
-12
Away
4
2
1
1
6
3
3
Neutral
1
0
0
1
1
4
-3

Notable matches:
2000 vs Luxembourg (David Healy scored twice on his debut, setting himself on the road to becoming Northern Ireland's record goalscorer)
2001 vs Norway (a small section of the crowd at Windsor Park subjected Neil Lennon to abuse, galvanising support for the recently introduced Football For All scheme)
2002 vs Poland (Steve Lomas' goal in a 4-1 defeat was Northern Ireland's last in any match for two years)
2002 vs Cyprus (Neil Lennon, who was set to captain Northern Ireland, withdrew and retired from international football after receiving a death threat)

Life under surprise appointee Lawrie Sanchez's management got off to a mixed start as the goal drought ended in a 4-1 friendly defeat by Norway. In line with earlier regimes, there were morale building end-of-season tours to the Caribbean and the USA along with glamour friendlies against Germany and Portugal to mark the Irish FA's 125th Anniversary.  In general, results were mixed, with a defeat by 10-man Canada and a draw with Malta gained only courtesy of a late penalty save among the poorest to date.

Friendly Record 2004-2007
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
7
1
3
3
5
11
-6
Away
7
4
3
0
10
3
7
Neutral
2
0
0
2
0
3
-3

Notable matches:
2004 vs Norway (David Healy ended Northern Ireland's two-year goalscoring drought in a 4-1 defeat)
2004 vs Trinidad & Tobago (Healy scores twice (his 13th & 14th) to become Northern Ireland's record goalscorer)

As he was appointed mid-way through a qualification campaign, Nigel Worthington was not afforded the opportunity to formulate game-plans in friendlies before being thrown into the cauldron of competitive matches. Later however, if combined with the matches played in the Nations Cup, this was the period in which Northern Ireland played more friendlies than ever before. Player withdrawals became ever more common, and made end-of-season matches in particular even more shambolic, and virtually all matches instantly forgettable.

Friendly Record 2008-2011
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
6
1
2
3
6
7
-1
Away
5
0
1
4
0
7
-7
Neutral
1
0
0
1
0
2
-2

Notable matches:
2010 vs Morocco (the eligibility issue came to a head as Adam Barton was awarded a "trial" cap, before opting to represent the Republic of Ireland)

Michael O'Neill's international management career got off to a difficult start with heavy defeats by Norway and the Netherlands. It was his 11th friendly match before he tasted victory, breaking the team's overall 20 match winless run.

Friendly Record 2012-date
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
3
1
1
1
4
6
-2
Away
Neutral
7
1
0
0
2
1
5
0
0
1
11
1
-11
0

Notable matches:
2012 vs Netherlands (Northern Ireland's heaviest defeat since 1949)
2014 vs Uruguay (match for the Unofficial World Championship and also for the Copa Antel)
2015 vs Latvia (Northern Ireland win their first friendly since 2008 vs Georgia)

Summary: (to end of 2015)
Venue
Pl
W
D
L
GF
GA
GD
Home
49
14
14
21
53
78
-25
Away
48
9
15
24
37
87
-50
Neutral
7
0
1
6
2
15
-14
104
23
30
51
92
180
-89

The Future
With the introduction of the UEFA Nations League planned for 2018, opportunities for friendly internationals will become rare in the future. It is fair to say that in their modern format they will hardly be missed as long-gone are the days where they brought a bit of added glamour to Windsor Park or provided an opportunity for a decent, competitive spectacle.

How the Nations League will be treated remains to be seen.

Sad, but sadly inevitable.

Records:
Most appearances: Maik Taylor (35)
Most goals: David Healy (14)

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