IMWT. In Michael we trust. Sometimes the locals like to put messages up on Divis mountain so Belfast receives some comment. It is usually political. IMWT is unlikely to go up on the mountain anytime soon for reasons unconnected here. But it should be the four letters at the front of many a Northern Ireland fan’s mind at the moment. In Michael we trust. The recent two results against Estonia and Belarus I bravely suggest will have given O’Neill as much pleasure as some of the more celebrated victories in his era. In short, he has spent almost 18 months slowly and incrementally putting together his next Northern Ireland team. That team took its first unaided steps last week.
About eight months ago I wrote about the 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic being the last time I saw a properly fluid victorious Northern Ireland performance. I think it was written before the Israel game if you want to count that, but the Nations League series showed that the team was in absolute transition. I would argue that the Estonia and Belarus performances were not necessarily fluid, but it was as clear an indicator that the team had leapt across the swirling rapids that separated the 2017 and 2019 teams.
They were two victories hewn out of belief, attitude, practice and direction. The Belarus victory was as tough an achieved win I have seen since the Hungary game in September 2014, though the Azerbaijan game in June 2017 runs it close. The steps forward were both of macro and micro variety. The issues pock-marking the pre-match landscape were real, but they were manageable issues to a degree by attitude, application and as always the necessary luck. The main concern was could the team do whatever was needed to extinguish them. They certainly did and more. It was very clear that should the team not collect full points the campaign was probably over before the clocks go forward. To lapse into Neil Armstrong territory, the team took a massive step forward.
Those casual onlookers will think Northern Ireland’s big moment was solely in 2016. But for the real GAWA landsers, the journey is the run leading through qualifying and whatever tournament accrues; or generally doesn’t. For followers of most football teams, certainly smaller ones it’s about looking for hope. So in acquiring those critical six points, the campaign continues with increased force to Tallinn and Borisov in June.
Whilst the manager had a stretched squad, the injuries were managed well by team and manager. These primarily were at right-back and midfield with Smith and Norwood’s absence. Dallas, while not a natural right-back brings such a force of footballing personality to whatever he does that he did a more than a reasonable job. Likewise in the centre of the pitch where the Saville/Davis/McNair fulcrum held the axis of the team ably.
In the same vein, the lack of game-time was hardly noticeable. The winning goal with the lactic levels rising, made by two of the recent bench-warmers Dallas and McNair, epitomised this. Moving up through the levels of concern, goals were scored; unlike the autumn. The play wasn’t as rolling as then, but something maybe had to give. The mistakes were fewer and critically, they weren’t punished. They may well be later on this year but that is not for now.
The main upshot and most important minute arising is the belief, and thus confidence the team should now have in itself. After a year of military exercises, if you like, two battles later and the team have won their spurs. A different style of play, nearly half the team replaced by new young blood and training ground moves paying dividends has the green and white giving-set bulging the veins with hope. It surely shows the new style of play presented in 2018 has not knocked the team off course. Yes, it is only two games, but the demand asked of the team was substantial in different ways. If the demand is met the equivalent reward must be accepted.
Estonia were a poor enough side but moderate teams that sit in their own half can be a very tough challenge for limited teams like ourselves. I felt there was slight rustiness from us and Saville and Davis clearly were working out how to play without Norwood behind them. Many were surprised to see Davis assuming that position and Saville and McNair driving forward. Age and fitness-wise though, it made sense and eventually it all clicked. Well done to Niall McGinn who yet again scored a hugely important goal and it was heart-warming to see how pleased he was to score in front of his home fans. As highlighted, the patience and lack of panic from the team spoke volumes. Would they have won that in the autumn?
Sunday evening and it all went up a notch. Noisier fans, the match more critical now that we had three points and a much more difficult side awaiting in red and white. Belarus were bigger physically, had players playing at a higher level. They had a strong forward who held the ball up well and of course, Aleksandr Hleb was able to keep and manoeuvre the ball in midfield. Obduracy from Minsk was clearly evident and a challenge and a half. To get that winner three minutes from time was like punching through a brick. The roof came off as the winning goal went in and one wondered if the roar would cause structural cracks as happened four years ago almost to the day against Finland.
The feel-good factor will hang until June and will drift eastward. If they can acquire six points again the team really must believe. It is a huge ask and right now most would say four are most likely. Should six be achieved, and assuming Holland will take 12 points from Belarus and Estonia, NI have to aim for the autumn matches still being relevant. Josh Magennis is certainly eyeballing that with his post-match call to positive arms. Who can deny him that? He has emerged to become a very important player for the team in recent times. He is one very articulate and eloquent lad as well.
The team have created a mixed opinion in the stands. Lafferty and Jones primarily fill that boat. Lafferty is clearly not the model of the last qualifying series and many fans compare him, not totally unreasonable to then, being aware of what he is capable. Others always hold his misdeeds against him which colours judgement. His movement and understanding with team colleagues can certainly be questioned.
I believe O’Neill will persevere with him as his role as a frontman lengthens the pitch and ties up defenders, even though the long ball to him is much reduced. His lay-off for McGinn, under pressure and in a tight space was a huge contribution in the Estonian game. The worry everyone used to have should Lafferty not be available a while back is certainly not the case now. But he plays his part in ensuring goals come from those around him now with the possession-based style of play.
Confident and mature
Magennis has his supporters to start, especially with his improved technical abilities but I believe he is better playing in more open water charging forward. Perhaps he is better suited to away games where there is more space as we are likely to be more compact. His display in Hannover in 2016 was a good example of this. I don’t believe the team move the ball fast enough to get the best out of him where we are making the play. He is better moving than being a stationary unit. Nevertheless, his decision not to shoot when he received Cathcart’s pass just prior to his goal and instead move it right to Dallas was the sign of a more confident and mature player. It certainly is the manager’s biggest decision and Boyce has different things to offer as well.
Similarly, Jordan Jones causes debate. Like Lafferty, many fans tend to fixate on what players can’t do rather than what they can do. Managers tend to see what they can do. It can be argued that we haven’t had someone who runs at a defence since Keith Gillespie. People who can do this with pace are an out ball and will pin defenders back and down. Yes, the price can be wasted balls and frustration but he fits well into the way O’Neill wants to play and I believe he will keep improving. Of the four major chances in the Estonian game, he supplied three of them – two for McNair and one for the goal. For many managers that more than warrants inclusion.
McNair too staked his claim and the manager was effusive about him. I have mentioned before about his domination and passing in midfield against Qatar at Crewe four years ago. He was majestic and those who saw him feel he should be there more often. We have a physically small midfield usually. He showed appetite, drive, strength and immense fitness in his two games. Dodgy groundsmen aside, he really should have had his name beside a goal.
Along with Saville, these pair are absolute offensive threats now and how often can you say that about Northern Irish central midfielders? Saville has had more shots on goal in his 18 months than some in their whole careers. Lafferty has to have these marauders running beyond him. At the risk of contradiction, kudos again to the manager who switched Dallas forward and McNair to right-back in the closing stages of Sunday’s game to maximise Dallas’ running power. As if affronted, Paddy ensured he was running past Dallas to provide the winning pass in a glorious reprise of Steve Davis’ goal against Greece. For me, McNair was a very worthy man of the match.
Lewis and Peacock-Farrell came of age as well. BPF had a tough autumn but showed resilience and character never mind his club situation not helping his confidence either. He pulled off two huge saves which arguably won us four points at let’s say, more than sensitive times in both matches and perhaps…..the campaign. Jamal Lewis showed he is one accomplished individual and is so comfortable on the ball. I felt, though, he pressed too high on his own against Estonia which led to the space behind leading to their big chance. Jonny Evans needs to keep a leash on him in those situations. He is real quality though.
As mentioned it was not all perfect. The technical shortcomings raise their head from time to time. That age-old Northern Irish football problem of having to move the ball back when faced with an organised defence through lack of speed, belief or nous is still very evident. Too often the team approach the front-line trench of the penalty box and there is simply stasis. It is easy to defend against and the team have to learn to have this movement without weakening the general shape.
But so much will have been learned from these games. There is the youth and energy to play in this way. The experience is still there and there are options off the bench by and large with cover in most positions…bar the centre-backs. Cathcart and Evans showed how polished a pair they are and we need them to be fit at all times. A clean sheet of bookings in both matches was an added bonus. The team looked like they knew their jobs and had the attitude and application to ensure completion. Each player brings something different to the table and that is rare in our history. Functionals in a Celtic cross they are not.
Rarely do Northern Irish teams win doubleheaders at home. The most famous instance perhaps being the Azerbaijan/England pair of victories in September 2005. 10 years to the week almost was the 3-2 Polish ‘Boruc’ match (with a J Evans goal as well) followed by 1-0 v Slovenia. High as the emotions were for different reasons over those sets of victories, if this (new) team can continue this great start, Michael O’Neill will probably get the statue built in the space where it is proving difficult to get George Best’s made.