A wonderful first-half hat-trick from Larne’s Paul Maguire guaranteed victory for Northern Ireland as they enjoyed a great 5-2 win over Qarachala (Azerbaijan) to end to their Regions’ Cup campaign. The high-scoring success saw them finish in third position behind finalists Italy and second placed Hungary – who finished ahead courtesy of a better goal difference.
Harry McConkey’s side opened their account after only six minutes when John Boyle headed home from Ryan Moffatt’s superb free-kick delivery. However the lead lasted only a minute as Isa Atayev neatly controlled a pass before scoring off the inside of the post.
Northern Ireland played extremely well throughout the first period; they were composed in possession and continually threatened the Azerbaijan backline.
Maguire became the star of the show with an impressive treble. On 21 minutes, an incisive break finished with Colum Curtis threading a pass into Maguire’s path and the Larne forward confidently finished low past goalkeeper Umid Pashayev.
His second goal, coming only six minutes later, was a spectacular effort; Johnny Montgomery played a floated pass forward for Colum Curtis who challenged the out-rushing ‘keeper. Pashayev headed the ball towards Maguire who hit a tremendous half-volley from 35 yards out which nestled in the back of the net. The hat-trick was complete just before the break when Moffatt’s precise corner was nodded home by Maguire from close range.
The Azerbaijan men pulled another goal back in the 63rd minute when Ramiz Chovdarov fired home from close range following an indirect free-kick decision. Northern Ireland grabbed a late goal to ensure they ran Hungary close for second place when Rusian Huseynov handled Stephen Moan’s cross inside the area. Captain James Cully stepped up and coolly slotted the spot-kick home.
Harry McConkey said: “I am very pleased with the performance of my players today and absolutely gutted for them that they lost out on achieving a bronze medal by a single goal in Group A. I was especially pleased with our first half performance and in particular the individual play from Colum Curtis, William Armstrong and our hat-trick hero Paul Maguire. I had made a few changes in the starting line-up and I think the players who had their first taste of football in the finals were eager to show what they could do as we run the Azerbaijan defence ragged.”
He added: “I hope the players go back to their local clubs as improved players and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the whole squad and backroom staff for their hard work, professionalism and support at the finals and indeed for the whole UEFA Regions’ Cup tournament.”