A first Nations League win continued to elude Northern Ireland as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Romania hours after relegation from League B had been confirmed by events off the pitch.
Eric Bicfalvi struck in the 81st minute to cancel out Liam Boyce’s goal and make it 10 games without a victory for Northern Ireland in a competition they will be happy to see the back of for the next two years.
When it does return in 2022, Northern Ireland will find themselves in League C, facing the likes of Azerbaijan, Kosovo, and Georgia, after UEFA announced in the hours before kick-off that Romania had been awarded three points for their cancelled match against Norway on Sunday.
That left Northern Ireland six points behind their opponents, the latest blow in a miserable international window which began with the end of their Euro 2020 hopes in defeat to Slovakia on Thursday.
Before kick-off Ian Baraclough tried to keep alive a glimmer of hope as he spoke of a possible appeal by Norway, who were deemed to have forfeited Sunday’s game after a coronavirus case prevented them from travelling, but Bicfalvi’s strike ensured any such appeal will be of no use to Northern Ireland now.
Relegation and the lower seeding that comes with it will complicate the picture for future qualifying campaigns, but the path followed by Scotland over the past two years offers a blueprint and after a miserable spell in League B it may do them some good if they can use it to build momentum.
Northern Ireland learned of UEFA’s decision just as they were about to begin their final team meeting before heading to the stadium, though the verdict had been expected and made no change to their approach.
Baraclough made five changes, restoring Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Josh Magennis and Bailey Peacock-Farrell while handing a debut to Matty Kennedy in the absence of Steven Davis, Niall McGinn, George Saville, Jordan Thompson and Kyle Lafferty.
It was another bright start from Northern Ireland, with Paddy McNair’s free-kick almost finding Dan Ballard at the far post less than 90 seconds in, but Romania gradually began to take control of possession.
Northern Ireland’s best opportunities were coming from set-pieces but they still struggled to test Ciprian Tatarusanu, with Liam Boyce meeting McNair’s corner with a first-time effort.
Kennedy carved out a good chance just before the break with his cross from the left finding Boyce, but his header was deflected wide.
The breakthrough came in the 56th minute and it was from a set-piece, albeit a corner that was played short to Michael Smith. The Hearts man crossed to the far post where Boyce forced his way through to scramble the ball over the line.
They almost gave the lead away moments later when Peacock-Farrell failed to collect a free-kick, and the Burnley goalkeeper was grateful Iulian Cristea failed to make contact in front of an open goal.
But Northern Ireland tails were up and Ali McCann was a whisker away from a first international goal as he sent a shot narrowly wide from another Smith cross.
At the other end, Romania had a penalty shout for a potential handball against Cathcart turned down before Peacock-Farrell made a sharp stop to deny Razvan Marin.
Manchester United’s Ethan Galbraith came on to make his debut but within two minutes of his arrival, Romania brought themselves level.
Florin Tanase got away from Ballard on the left and pulled the ball back for Bicfalvi to turn in at the near post and deflate Northern Ireland once again.
Attention will now turn to next year’s World Cup qualifiers, with the page quickly turned on another Nations League campaign to forget.