OVERVIEW: Northern Ireland end barren run in friendly internationals

Northern Ireland's captain Steven Davis watches the ball go past Latvia goalkeeper Andris Vanins to make it 1-0. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland's captain Steven Davis watches the ball go past Latvia goalkeeper Andris Vanins to make it 1-0. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Friday the 13th usually conjures up images of bad luck and misfortune, but last night Northern Ireland’s dismal run in friendlies finally prospered.

Fresh from their Euro 2016 qualification heroics, Michael O’Neill’s side continued building momentum with a 1-0 win over Latvia at Windsor Park.

Captain Steven Davis stabbed home the winning goal in the 55th minute, the midfielder returning to the scene of his finest hour in a Northern Ireland shirt to earn a rare friendly victory.

You had to date back seven years for their last non-competitive win, coming in a 4-1 triumph over Georgia in March, 2008.

Northern Ireland had gone 23 friendly fixtures without victory since then - including 11 under manager O’Neill - but last night that barren spell finally ended in south Belfast.

O’Neill played down the significance of last night’s victory, but praised the performance of his players as they finished the year on a positive note.

“The main thing was to win the game and get a level of performance,” O’Neill said.

“We have had a great year with some great results, and a great campaign.

“The nature of friendly games is difficult.

“I keep reading these really positive stats from people that go back to 1966 that we haven’t won a friendly or something.

“Trust me, I wasn’t manager back then.

“I think we should celebrate that we are going to the Euros, rather than dredge these things up.

”We have had a great year with some great results, and a great campaign.

“We should celebrate the achievements of the team.

“That’s eight games unbeaten now and a clean sheet was good tonight as well. So it was all positive.”

“We are looking forward to the tournament now. The players have to recognise what has got them here to this point, and the work rate and energy they have put in, and the belief and confidence they have as a team.

O’Neill preached the importance of momentum going into last night’s game in Belfast.

The Northern Ireland boss adhered to that mantra by picking an experienced line-up that included the key personnel who had helped earn Euro qualification.

While O’Neill refrained from tinkering with his starting XI, he did experiment with a three-man defence in preparation for next summer’s finals in France.

Jonny Evans returned after missing last month’s historic qualifiers, and he was joined by West Brom teammate Gareth McAuley and Watford’s Craig Cathcart at the back.

Conor McLaughlin and Stuart Dallas were deployed as wing-backs, with Kyle Lafferty and Jamie Ward leading the attack.

Northern Ireland dominated the opening half with Lafferty having the best chance in the 32nd minute, but after racing onto Davis’ pass the Norwich striker dragged his shot wide of the post.

Lafferty went close again four minutes after the break, surging into the box before unleashing a left-foot shot that was well saved by Andris Vanins.

Northern Ireland got the breakthrough in the 55th minute courtesy of Davis’ finish.

The skipper - who scored two against Greece last month - met Cathcart’s deep cross with a header that was blocked by Vanins, but the Southampton midfielder forced home the rebound for his eighth international goal.

A plethora of substitutions punctuated the second half as the game drew to a disjointed close.

O’Neill introduced Corry Evans, Roy Carroll, Josh Magennis, Shane Ferguson and Paddy McCourt to sample the party atmosphere generated by over 11,700 fans inside a freezing Windsor Park.

Latvia substitute Artjoms Rudnevs almost punctured the carnival mood when he flashed a shot just wide of Carroll’s post in the 88th minute.

“I was pleased with a lot of aspects of the performance.

“We changed the system tonight and I thought the players adapted really well,” O’Neill added.

“Our final ball in the first half could have been better and we should have had more shots on target than we did.

“But I thought we controlled the game and it was good to be able to make the six changes and give minutes to players who haven’t had more opportunities.”