Asian Euro Invasion
Northern Ireland 0-1 Kazakhstan (European Championship Qualifiers)
So before we start... Kazakhstan of course is in Central Asia, not Europe, but as a former Soviet nation (population 19m), they long applied to participate in UEFA competition, switching from the Asian Federation back in 2002, and ever since have struggled amidst 'whipping boy' status on the international stage, but this year in particular, under their cool and rather Russian looking 'Pep-a-like' in Magomed Adiyev, they have already exceeded their wildest expectations.
After losing their first group H qualifier against Slovenia in the 2024 Euros they then beat Denmark 3-2 in Astana, coming from two goals behind for a surprise victory. In their second match against San Marino they managed a more routine 3-0 win. Going into this match against Northern Ireland, they sat impressively top of the group, with a realistic chance of qualification.
In contrast, after reaching their first finals in 30 years back in 2016, Northern Ireland (population 1.8m), have missed out on recent major tournaments, finishing third in the 'quali' group behind Switzerland and Italy in their 2022 World Cup push, before that, in 2020 they finished third in a group that contained Netherlands and Germany, luck of the draw for the Irish, hasn't been kind.
This time a more favourable looking group on paper, but it's been a bad start for Michael O'Neill's men, who after the formality of beating San Marino in their opening match lost their next game against Finland 1-0, before defeat to Denmark by the same scoreline on Friday, agonising as a late leveller was ruled out cruelly for a very debatable offside.
It's match day, start of the week, I'm in the car for early afternoon heading up to the park and ride at Clifton which links me straight to East Midlands Airport, a bright day in Nottingham, the few remaining hair strands on my head lifting like an old-skool Bobby Charlton barnet as the bus cakes it down the A453, windows open, pulling up straight outside the terminal doors.
It's bloody packed, full of holiday makers, chaos, screaming kids and panicky families pelting towards the gates for Dalaman & Lanzarote, luckily I'm out the way in the quieter section as a tiny propeller plane turns up with the logo Aer Lingus, readying for its umpteenth domestic flight of the day.
The journey across the Irish Sea is short, calm, quick, I'm off at Belfast City, now known as George Best Airport, where I chat to an old bird after landing who tells me "I went to school with him ya know" now 77 she's lived in Corby for 30 years but still calls Belfast home.
Like the flight, the taxi to my digs is equally quick, cheap, only £13 to my hotel on Botanic Avenue, although I struggle understanding the drivers thick Irish accent, he's ranting about all sorts whilst I just nod my head in agreement to keep peace.
After shaking hands to say goodbye it's a quick bag drop and I'm out the doors of my hotel for 6pm, a twenty minute walk to the stadium down the Lisburn Road before turning right on to Yates Avenue, hills in the distance as I cross a train bridge and down the steps towards the residential Donegall Avenue to the back end of Windsor Park.
Appearing beyond the roofs of terraced housing the new cantilevered stands of Windsor Park Stadium in white, under grey skies, they fit into the local area's architectural style without standing out like a saw thumb, I'm walking down the back of the East Stand as I notice a photographer who was on my flight, he's Dan Westwell, a Mansfield Town fan who covers a lot of games for the Stags as well as Notts County and for UEFA, I've collared him on the entrance to press and media as he's snapping around taking it all in, like myself, it's his first time in Northern Ireland, I swap details and tell him to give me a call after the match to go for a pint.
Up the lift to level three of the South Stand I find my seat centrally located but really high up, looking down on to a magnificent looking surface being sprayed by water sprinklers ahead of the two teams coming out, three sides adjoined with green and white seats, the old famous North Stand opposite, a two tier stand which looks like it's off an old Subbuteo set, think Wolves, think Spurs, think Forest, but smaller, that era when 1980s stand building was all about two tiers, in fact the rest of the stadium, recently redeveloped, was done by architects who designed one of the stands at Trent Bridge, around a mile and half away from my house.
Sat back in my seat, in the distance you see the glorious rolling hills, a huge golf ball looking structure on the horizon to my left takes my eye, apparently called RISE, it was designed by Wolfgang Buttress and erected in 2011 as a representation of a new sun rising on the city.
I'm joined by a scout from Brighton & Hove Albion as the game starts with a cagey opening. Northern Ireland with home advantage look to penetrate the Kazakhstan defence with long balls and crosses from wide, I'm impressed with the travelling nations technical ability in possession, neat on the ball they have a bit of guile and in patches play some tidy one touch stuff.
In fact the opening chance of the game is spurned by the visitors. Maksim Samorodov somehow gets into the box, throwing a couple of shoulders as the Irish defence opens up. He places wide from close range when he really should have found the back of the net.
In response, the hosts go close with a couple of headers over the bar. Craig Cathcart is guilty of missing from close range after Paddy McNair's knockback from an Isaac Price corner before George Saville heads over from underneath the posts, the two teams contrast in styles, but very evenly matched.
All weekend I've been predicting nil nil, and the second half is even worse than the first half, Tagybergen the talented number eight for Kazakhstan has hit at least three cross-field passes out of play, in fact the throw in count is probably higher than the pass completion statistics, a number of subs are made to try and perk things up.
One of those subs, Conor McMenamin makes immediate impact, he's busy down the right and takes aim from range, stinging the palms of Shatskiy who does well to push over athletically.
Northern Ireland continue to push, youngster Dale Taylor is brought on and he looks to cause problems down the left, quick footed he's linking up well with Jordan Thompson but as the hosts throw men forward, one pass finds Aymbetov the furthest Kazak forward still inside his own half, he's running straight line for goal and shrugs off one challenge before a defender slides in and completely misses him, suddenly he's inside the box, suddenly it's just the keeper to beat, suddenly Kazakhstan are in the lead.
A pocket of no more than 100 away fans go wild, players huddled, celebrating with staff in the corner of the pitch, it's a late goal and the visitors have pulled off another huge win, and one that gives them serious belief that they might just qualify for their first ever major tournament finals.
I really liked CSKA Moscow's Bakhtiyar Zaynutdinov who played right of midfield and had a good tussle with Jordan Thompson of Stoke. Samorodov at just twenty years old fronted the line of attack alone but well, he should have scored but also shown some neat touches and intelligent plays, a lot of the football from Kazakhstan was simple, short passing with a bit of risk taking, some technical neat footballers like Gabyshev, Beysebekov and Orazov which is providing a positive future for their status as an emerging footballing nation.
For Northern Ireland, Trai Hume at 21 was positive, gutsy and direct from right wing back, in midfield Manchester City owned Shea Charles was like an old Rolls Royce or Bentley, purring slow paced but with class and elegance, aged 19 at 6ft2in with a bit of a chest he reminded me a of a young Tom Huddlestone, took a while to get going when running with the ball at his feet, but when he shifted through the gears he eventually found some speed to burst past opponents, a player who could very well have a big future, he played some neat touches and took up sensible positions and done everything with an ease and simplicity with aura of someone beyond his years. A successor to Rodri at City? Perhaps?
For Northern Ireland, it might be a qualifying campaign to write off, now three games in, with three defeats, it will be hard to make the cut for next summer's tournament in Germany, but for Kazakhstan, and their long travelling mini army of fantastic vocal and colourful followers, they might start to really believe, that this side right now, actually 'can' create history and make Euro 24. Their journey is far from complete.
Northern Ireland: Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Paddy McNair, Jonny Evans (Conor McMenamin 64), Craig Cathcart, Trai Hume, Ali McCann (Dale Taylor 71), Shea Charles, George Saville, Jordan Thompson (Ciaran Brown 84), Isaac Price, Dion Charles (Shayne Lavery 71).
Kazakhstan: Igor Shatskiy, Nuraly Alip, Marat Bystrov, Askhat Tagybergen (Erkin Tapalov 81), Maxim Samorodov (Abat Aymbetov 81), Yan Vorogovskiy, Mikhail Gabyshev (Lev Skvortsov 68), Baktiyor Zaynutdinov (Islambek Kuat 75), Ramazan Orazov (Elka Astanov 81), Abzal Beysebekov, Alexandr Marochkin.
7:45pm Kick Off. Monday 19th June 2023, Windsor Park, Belfast (att 18,002).