On the first day of September 2017, as the autumnal chills were beginning to wrap their cold fingers around football fans watching their teams progress – or otherwise – through the qualifying programme, chasing a place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Michael O’Neill took his Northern Ireland team to the Stadio Olimpico di Serravalle in San Marino. They returned with a comfortable 0-3 victory. On the face of it, the result was probably one of the easiest to predict of the evening’s international fixtures across the globe.
San Marino are, after all, one of the weakest of the Fifa family members, being placed at 204 in the August 2017 rankings with only the British Virgin Islands, of the teams with any ranking at all, beneath them. Until Gibraltar were admitted into Uefa in 2013, they were also European football’s smallest competing country, as defined by population numbers. All that said though, there’s just the slightest of chances that perhaps the result may have been different had the home team been able to call on the services of their most capped player and top scorer. Unfortunately, the man in question was injured and unavailable. When you’re the only player in the history of your country’s footballing exploits to ever have scored a winning goal whilst wearing the national colours, you’re going to carry a little prestige with you, even if you are at the ripe old age of 41. Continue reading →