The international season just passed for Northern Ireland will always be framed by three countries in many heads. Switzerland for the play – off games in November, Romania for that regulatory hooligan Oviedu Hategan, and finally Scotland for their failed attempt to lure away that leader of the team Michael O’Neill. It is entirely possible shareholders in Irn – Bru have seen their investments fall and no doubt Bulls Blood sales have dropped also.
But the main story of a new team slowly emerging ambles on in the background reasonably smoothly two years on from the Euros. In the nine games played we played a mix of friendlies, tour games, qualifiers and play-offs. The stats as is usual don’t generally tell the full story with Northern Ireland. For the record we won three, lost four and drew two. Scoring eight and conceding nine could fit in easily enough to most periods in our era – in fact scoring eight would probably be above average. We can come back to this if necessary but let’s follow the calendar.
A tense Friday early September night in San Marino saw us take most of the match to break them down but well done to Josh Magennis who again made himself useful with a brace. The following Monday at Windsor saw a repeat of the composed home performances that we had shown against Azerbaijan and Norway to dismiss the Czech Republic. Under an amazing sky veterans Brunt and Evans wrapped it up by half- time. To be frank that was the strongest point of the season for me and whilst there has not been unravelling, the much talked about plunge of the team started to emit a vibration or so.
Losing to Germany was not an issue and fair tactical kudos to the manager who quickly sorted his formational mistake in that game involving Lee Hodson. A spirited second – half performance and the introduction of George Saville to the fans on top of a goal were good plus points. Bearing in mind the qualification job was done so to speak a bye ball perhaps could be given to the Oslo outing but I’m not sure we can ever afford flat performances. Brunty will still wonder about that own goal.
So we were in the big boys’ playground with the play-offs and as I have previously mentioned the penalty decision did not hide a poor showing. No attempts at goal for me should mean no trip to Novgorod. Basel was better but we simply did not deserve to be in Russia. So the winter was about O’Neill’s decision to keep his hand red and the first sod could be cut for the foundations of the second side of the O’Neill years. Armed with greater influence and directorial power he set about continuing the green and white charisma.
The best day of the year in March against interesting South Korean opposition allowed him to start armour – plating positions that might need servicing or replacement. The patient Trevor Carson got his place in goals and Jordan Jones and Jamal Lewis were given starts alongside the all action George Saville. After settling down a victory of note was achieved with young Paul Smyth’s winner. It was as if a symbolic cherry on the cake was being polished. Equally important alongside these pluses was the return to the fold of McNair, Cathcart and Boyce after grim injuries that threaten mindsets as well as tissue. The village elders in the team nodded sagely as it was their continued presence that was allowing the correct blooding process to occur.
The Central American tour almost was more a case of putting in a third level of structure behind the more recent inductees just mentioned. This occurred in equal levels on and off the pitch. It was clear that the Costa Rican game was a match too far but I am sure that of the new ones who attended the trip, the side hopefully will benefit in the way that the careers of Lafferty, Clingan, Magennis and Conor McGlaughlin blossomed from these expeditions.
The team now on paper has players who can be considered for all positions. Some are more battle ready than others and some may yet get shell shock yet but in a short space of time we are well placed for the autumn. Immediate things to ponder – is Paddy McNair ready to go straight into central midfield for the next competitive game? A year ago we looked dangerously light in central midfield. Saville and McNair are now putting pressure on Norwood and Corry Evans. Smyth now offers a different dynamic up front. Lafferty has had a great season in Edinburgh. If Brunt leaves we should be able to cope with Evans, Lewis and probably Shane Ferguson who can all manage on the port side.
We still need back-up in defence should Hughes and then McAuley go but if we can repair ourselves in this short space of time that should not be a problem either. We now have a strength off the bench which before lacked a little and another injection of experience. I still would prefer us to play four at the back but the option of switching to three is a good one to have. McGovern needs to play regularly for a club and Ollie Norwood likewise. This will be a crucial club season for Steve Davis too.
On a lighter note the highlight of the season surely must be Michael O’Neill’s polite attempts at the press conferences in Central America to dampen down his Co. Antrim tones. Marvellous stuff – it is clear there is no Hispanic quarter in Ballymena. And on a similar note we can all be thankful that Jonny Evans managed not to get into public transport difficulties in the Americas. The Celtic cross can rest now for a few months!