Pat Jennings text Steven Davis before kick off to congratulate the Northern Ireland captain on breaking his record of 119 international appearances. Another upbeat message may well follow from the legendary goalkeeper after Davis’ 120th cap, and 120 absorbing minutes against Bosnia-Herzegovina, produced a night to savour in Sarajevo for Ian Baraclough’s determined team.
The dream of a second successive appearance at the European Championships remains alive for Northern Ireland following a penalty shoot-out victory over Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic and company. Bailey Peacock-Farrell, the Burnley keeper who made several important interventions in normal time, is also due congratulations from Jennings after he made the only save of the shoot-out from Haris Hajradinovic. When Edin Visca struck his penalty against the crossbar the visitors’ excitement rose, but so did George Saville’s next spot-kick, high into the Bosnian sky. Enter Conor Washington and Liam Boyce and the astute influence of Baraclough in only his third game in charge of Northern Ireland, one that would have been played under Michael O’Neill had the match been held as scheduled seven months ago.
In the final seconds of extra time the Northern Ireland manager withdrew two substitutes for two others with more prowess from the penalty spot. Washington slotted into the top corner. Boyce, to win it, sent goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic the wrong way and a play-off final against Slovakia now awaits at Windsor Park next month. This was a proper Northern Ireland performance, built on an impressive response to an apprehensive start and falling behind to Rade Kunic’s early strike. Niall McGinn showed at 33 that he remains a man for the big occasion by drawing the visitors level in the second half. Both teams had chances to win it before the first competitive penalty shootout in Northern Ireland’s history ended in despair for Dusan Bajevic and his players and ecstasy for those piling on to Hearts striker Boyce.
“We had a game plan, something we’ve spoken about and worked on,” said Baraclough. “Who are the best penalty takers and are confident stepping up?
“We were desperate to get the ball out of play to get Boycie and Washington on the pitch. We knew they (Jordan Jones and Thompson) weren’t the strongest penalty takers but they were selfless for the team.”
Northern Ireland made an ominous start with players struggled to keep their feet from the first whistle onwards – Paddy McNair slipped taking the kick off and had to retake – and problems with the surface contributed to the hosts claiming an early lead. But the pitch was not the only factor, as the visitors allowed Bosnia-Herzegovina to dominate until the moment Krunic made the breakthrough.
The opener was galling from Baraclough’s perspective. Branimir Cipetic, the Bosnia-Herzegovina right back, was released in space down the right by a simple ball out of defence and over Jamal Lewis.
Jonny Evans came across to cover but lost his footing at the crucial moment, one of several Northern Ireland players to do so. That left Cipetic free to pick out Krunic arriving in the penalty area and the Milan forward converted low between the legs of Peacock-Farrell, to the delight of almost 2000 home supporters allowed in the stadium.
It served as a wake-up call for Northern Ireland, who almost levelled immediately when Corry Evans crossed for Josh Magennis to head goalwards. Sehic saved superbly down to his left. Though Pjanic went close from distance and Peacock-Farrell saved from Krunic there was more purpose and intent in Northern Ireland’s attacking play after falling behind. The hosts, missing several defenders through injury, were visibly uncomfortable under pressure and Saville should have equalised on the stroke of half-time. Paddy McNair’s back post header found the midfielder unmarked in the area but, having controlled with his chest, he volleyed wildly over from close range.
The interval did not break the momentum or increasing menace in the Northern Ireland performance. Baraclough’s side started the second half in the ascendency and were rewarded with the equaliser they craved when Magennis flicked Craig Cathcart’s long ball into the path of McGinn. The 33-year-old, who sealed his country’s famous win over Ukraine at the last European Championships in Lyon, nicked the ball past two defenders, benefiting from a kind ricochet off each, before beating Sehic with a cool finish.
Pjanic hit the bar from a free-kick as the hosts reacted strongly and forced Peacock-Farrell into several important stops before tiredness, and perhaps the prize at stake, produced a cagey extra time. But there was just enough time for Baraclough’s double substitution, and it is Northern Ireland who, in the words of McGinn: “Are ready to rock ‘n’ roll in Belfast next month.”