Northern Ireland saved their best until last as they ended a miserable Euro 2024 qualifying campaign on a high note with a 2-0 win over Group H winners Denmark.
Second-half goals from Isaac Price and Dion Charles got Windsor Park roaring again as Northern Ireland recorded only their third win of the year, and the first against anyone other than San Marino.
The match was effectively a dead rubber – Northern Ireland’s hopes of progressing to next summer’s finals were over by the summer while Denmark booked their ticket with a 2-1 win over Slovenia on Friday night – but this was a much-needed win for Michael O’Neill’s men after a testing few months.
The injury problems that have plagued them from the very start continued to the bitter end with Daniel Ballard ruled out of this one, but the young players O’Neill has had to lean on so heavily should take great encouragement from a win over the top-ranked nation in Group H.
Victory came thanks to two fine goals. On the hour, Jamal Lewis spun away from his man and ran down the left, playing the ball inside to Dion Charles who shuffled it on to Shea Charles. The Southampton man then saw the run of Price, whose shot beat Kasper Schmeichel at his near post.
Then with nine minutes left Conor McMenamin, just on as a substitute, burst down the left, beat Crystal Palace’s Joachim Andersen and played a low ball across goal for Dion Charles to sweep home.
At the other end, it was a good night too for Conor Hazard. O’Neill had been unhappy with how the Plymouth goalkeeper had conceded the second goal in Friday’s 4-0 loss to Finland, but the stand-in stopper came up with two big saves in the first half here, then another in stoppage time.
O’Neill had made three changes from Friday’s heavy defeat. Ciaron Brown replaced the injured Ballard, Dale Taylor came in for Ross McCausland and Shea Charles returned from suspension at the expense of Jordan Thompson.
As they did in Helsinki, Northern Ireland began well, and they were gifted a golden opportunity eight minutes in when Rasmus Kristensen’s poor header fell into the path of Dion Charles only for the Bolton striker to see his shot rattle the far post.
Eoin Toal then headed wide from a deep cross, but gradually Denmark, sporting seven changes from Friday’s win as Kasper Hjulmand assessed some of his squad players, began to exert control and the spark went out of Northern Ireland’s performance.
Hazard watched Morten Hjulmand’s half-volley fly over the crossbar before Mohamed Daramy cut in from the left to hit a shot which perhaps struck Paddy McNair on the arm although the Middlesbrough man, wearing the captain’s armband, had his hands across his chest.
Hazard made a reaction save to deny Andersen from a corner, and then used less orthodox methods to keep out a long-range effort from ex-Chelsea man Andreas Christiansen, diving to his right and then kicking it clear after it took a deflection off Toal.
The crowd had gone quiet as Denmark bossed play, but it all changed in the second half.
Toal had headed narrowly wide from a Lewis cross just before Price finished off Northern Ireland’s best move of the night, perhaps of the entire campaign, to wake Windsor Park from its slumbers.
Denmark substitute Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg blasted a shot wide soon after, but McMenamin then came off the bench to tee up the decisive second.
After Hazard made another good save to deny Jonas Wind, the match-winner in Copenhagen back in June, in stoppage time the final whistle was greeted with a huge cheer as the frustrations of a long campaign were expunged.