Northern Ireland

A tall order in Estonia and can Belarus be ‘bate’ in Belarus?

The oft-invaded lands of Estonia and Belarus loom very quickly up ahead for Northern Ireland. In the nearest thing to a double, doubleheader, the international calendar has provided the away obligations of our last two matches on Saturday in Tallinn and the following Tuesday in Borisov. Again, they have fallen well for Northern Ireland with hopefully the weaker side being dispatched first to enable the team to give full vent to its mojo. This will be necessary against the stronger Belarus. This was certainly the case in March where confidence was gained in the first match after a rusty first half against Estonia. The six points were very hard earned three months ago and there is everything to suggest that a further six will be more difficult to attain.

2013 was the last early summer that the Northern Ireland team did not have some activity going on. In those five years, the manager has used what habitually was a grim period results wise for the side to garner and plant positivity. Many would agree with the belief that the 2014 tour of South America was the ‘bottle against the ship moment’ that has the team still sailing on that good wave. For many years fans would dread June matches as the team struggled with fitness and other issues whilst trying to keep motivated for several weeks after a hard season. Horror results over the years against the likes of Iceland in 1977, Denmark two years later and also Sweden, Latvia, and Spain did us no good whatsoever.  These are the ones that stick in my head anyway.

But in these recent years manager O’Neill has maximised the team time together in June achieving an important point against Romania in June 2015. Two years later a win against New Zealand and a huge three points in Baku which (Euro 2016 aside) are probably the highlights so far. Last year’s Central American tour was more about keeping team spirit alive and new cap integration. But these next two matches will be a huge test for this still-developing team.

Those assembled for the trip are in not too bad a shape compared to some previous ‘get-togethers’. Far from perfect but still ready enough to cross the start line if we lapse into military speak.  If we look at who is likely to play either from the start or from the bench the mood should be strong. At this point of the season, consideration can be given to how hard a season various players have had. In that respect reduced playing time which we generally abhor could work well for the team this time in high temperatures. Lewis aside, most players have had substantial breaks at various times from club sides throughout the season which hopefully will help. Jonny Evans, Steve Davis, Paddy McNair, Stuart Dallas are a few who have not been run into the ground due to injury and selection issues.

The training camp broken in two in Manchester is now established as a ‘warmer’ and likewise the Austrian one which is now almost a ‘little Ulster in the Tyrol’. O’Neill has skilfully used Manchester to send a subtle message as to the state of play. Trevor Carson would have been pleased to be invited but the two competitive matches were a step too far. Still, he is still very much part of international plans. Mark Sykes will be delighted to have featured and is exactly the embodiment of what O’Neill sees as the pathway from the Irish League to England. Will Grigg, in and out of club football due to various reasons finds it replicated internationally. Alfie McCalmont and Daniel Ballard continue the youth injection.

There is little chance that much will change from the teams that played in March. The manager has a decision to make at right-back. Does he put Michael Smith back in there or leave Dallas in who did a fine job. The midfield will most likely again consist of Davis, Saville, and McNair and probably Jones and Whyte out wide. One hopes McNair can put in another physical powerhouse performance similar to his March output.

Should Smith start at right-back though, Dallas will be found a place somewhere on the flanks such is his running power which the manager hugely admires. Gavin Whyte’s pace will be a welcome return though hats off to replacement Niall McGinn who did the business against Estonia. Corry Evans may well make an appearance and likewise, Shane Ferguson whose left foot can provide excellent delivery.

Up front still remains a conundrum and whilst this is the case, Lafferty may well be used as the workhorse to wear down defences.  Magennis and Boyce may arrive off the bench like hyenas to finish off Eastern European carrion. The team is very accustomed to this set-up now. The point through all this surmising and second-guessing is he has options depending on how the match goes. Six points is a huge ask but there lies a squad who have belief in their manager and themselves. Most onlookers expect four points from the matches with the team probably drawing in Borisov and winning in Tallinn. If they can ‘bate’ Belarus in Borisov it will be one very interesting autumn.