Like a recovering alcoholic, the proximity to previous depths is never far from Northern Ireland. As was very likely, the post-season gap may have had plenty to do with a very poor first-half that was as typical of many an NI performance in years past. Indeed, the two performances against Estonia in September and October 2011 very easily came to mind as examples. Saturday’s goal scorer Vassiljev even tormented then by scoring twice at Windsor. That month did for Nigel Worthington as did general Ulster morale. Our results against Estonia are not too bad over the course of our battles with them, but those two results had left a huge sore point for the team in legacy.
If the broader transformation of the O’Neill/Worthington team was on show here, the performance between first and second half not only showed but also enables O’Neill’s tactics to have acute and astute in the same descriptive sentence. It was as massive a result in O’Neill’s tenure as there has been, and rivals the Hungary away 2-1 result of September 2014. They didn’t play as poorly against Hungary though and this Estonian game was as big an indicator of character, belief and managerial acumen in this era as a few others.
At half-time, lacking energy, tempo, and any sort of foothold, the rest of the campaign and footballing calendar year was slipping into the early summer ether. The lofted and misplaced, aimless and hopeful passes summarised Northern Ireland’s attempts with the ball. It can be easy to blame it all on a decision to play Liam Boyce. Whether to start Magennis, Boyce or Lafferty might have had fairly equal votes everywhere. Boyce got the nod no doubt through training and a good end of season goal bout.
But on his own he was bullied by two Estonian blocks, and was poorly supported and serviced. Our game was slow, laboured and unimaginative. A clever goal conceded was more than unfortunate. Between a wall that was not accurate, and Paddy McNair turning his head rather than his foot at the end of the aforesaid structure, ‘can do better’ is not harsh. The midfield could have been posted missing in the Baltic.
It was all set up for 1-0 and the resulting nihilism. But Estonia were not a good enough side for an O’Neill team to lose in such a fashion. If O’Neill has erred before in initial set-up he has quickly realised this as in his Poland 2016 and Germany 2017 selections. We function much better in a more harum-scarum game when the structure is broken by pace and power. His post-match chat about “putting more energy into the game” from player type rather than player attitude was very telling. Also his identification of Washington “getting down the side of defenders” was never better illustrated.
The three-point thump of Washington, Jones and Magennis was the surgical equivalent of ‘cut, resect, close’ such was the trauma inflicted. The ball was much more on the ground and Jones started putting needles into the now puffy Estonian flesh softened by Washington. For those that remember it was similar to Howard Gayle’s cameo against Bayern Munich for Liverpool in 1981. The power running from deeper positions clearly works better for us than lobbing forward to the most advanced position. That can apply to Lafferty as well.
There was now purpose to everything, and Estonia were facing their own net as we got in amongst them. Both our goals were of the highest quality of forward play. The determination and threat of Washington as he started and created the first goal was like a kingfisher on a trout. Magennis’ run and finishing angle was Bangor quicksilver. The goal was created in his head before Jones had released the ball and had the subtlety of David Healy’s second against Sweden at Windsor in March 2007.
Would we have done this without being 1-0 down equates to would we have beaten Ukraine without a poor performance v Poland in 2016? Do we need the sight of the edge of the cliff to make it happen? That cliff can manifest in various forms be it 12 points or nothing in this campaign, or ten minutes to go in the match? Individually, does it also appear as shirt opportunities for the three substitutes? No doubt! It could even be as O’Neill alluded to, the freedom of expression of his substitutes after difficult club seasons. It’s maybe not as complex as that but certainly we have options that many a previous Northern Ireland side had not. Doses of luck helped too, be it the shot off the bar, the disallowed goal or Magennis’ deflection being ruled onside.
We also have a clever manager and belief and character which are sometimes more beyond reach. Again, Estonia was a huge result. How many times do we come back from behind competitively away from home never mind score goals? When indeed was the last time Washington got a cap? Israel last September I see on further research. The Estonias of this world can ask more of us than your Hollands, Spains, Englands or Germanys in a mental rather than playing sense. As ever, be it those countries or the sight of the cliff we still need that bolus. It may always be thus.