It’s good news only for the Northern Irish national side in the build-up to the UEFA Nations League as their strikers have already found their form just two games into the season. Forwards Liam Boyce, Josh Magennis and Kyle Lafferty all hit the back of the net for their respective teams over the weekend, and all three will have their eyes firmly fixed on that starting position under manager Michael O’Neill when that first fixture arrives in early October.
After an astounding couple of years under O’Neill, Northern Ireland are well on their way to becoming a truly imposing national team. A side most recognisable perhaps for their daunting defensive presence and ability to keep goals out, yet an outfit always noticeable for their togetherness and determination, it may now be time for their strike force to come to the fore.
The likes of Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans have combined to form one of the most successful defensive nations in recent years, while in front of them captain Steven Davis has been an ever-present, class act that has been at the forefront of everything positive about the national side in recent memory.
And while it may be time for bright, ambitious players such as George Saville, Jordan Jones and Jamal Lewis to show their abilities and burst onto the scene, both Magennis and Boyce still have plenty to prove in a Northern Ireland shirt, while Lafferty will show once again this season that he should never be ruled out of a starting berth within O’Neill’s set up.
The Hearts forward has been heavily linked with a move back to former club Rangers throughout the summer transfer window, and this weekend has proven why as his thumping volley provided the only moment of class as Hearts overcame champions Celtic 1-0. The Fermanagh man continues to divide opinion in Scotland, but Northern Ireland fans will simply be happy that their beloved forward is finding his feet so early into the new season, particularly after much speculation surrounding his future.
South of the border and it was both Boyce and Magennis who matched the efforts of their national teammate, with the former bagging Burton’s only goal in a 3-1 loss at Gillingham, while the latter found the net in Bolton’s 2-2 home draw with Bristol City. Both forwards notched their second goal in as many games, and have proven their abilities already this season.
From humble upbringings at firstly Lisburn Distillery and then Glentoran for Magennis, to Cliftonville for Boyce, who incidentally reduced his summer holidays to regain his fitness for the upcoming season, the pair have shown the determination and perseverance to succeed, and their pride to represent the national team is a constant signifier of just how much it means to pull on the green and white jersey.
If the goals of both Magennis and Boyce are anything to go by, it’s that good things come in pairs, and that certainly rings true for the Northern Ireland faithful. The Green and White Army have it all to look forward to in the coming months, with two home fixtures in September, followed by two away matches in October, with another two home games in November.
Bosnia and Israel travel to Belfast in the initial round of fixtures in the Nations League in September, where O’Neill’s men will be looking to get off to the best possible start, with two wins from two the realistic aim in this day and age for Northern Ireland, who have generated an almost unbeatable fortress at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park over recent years.
The toughest tests then lie in the following month, where both Austria and once again Bosnia will be patiently awaiting the arrival of Magennis and Co., and finally November brings with it another challenge, where firstly a fiery friendly awaits Northern Ireland in the form of the Republic of Ireland, perhaps perfect preparation for the home tie with Austria just three days later.
After World Cup agony and heartbreak for the entirety of the nation as they watched on in Russia, domestic football has finally returned, yet the excitement of international football isn’t far away. Northern Ireland will once again be put to the test, but it is a challenge they welcome with open arms and one that may finally decide just how competent they are in terms of international stature.