GAWA: The status still quo – NI one year on from the Euros

Northern Ireland

There was huge interest on NI after France to see if that was ‘it’ – our only party piece. It appears it may have been a bit like this for Wales but let us not forget they did get to the semi-finals. I’ll let you decide if that is relevant.

On and below the surface, it has been a hugely successful campaign for Michael O’Neill and his team. It is unheard of for Northern Ireland teams to ‘qualify’ with two games remaining and that achievement sent a message out to everyone that we were still a serious player. This also included the team themselves that the bigger steps they were now taking were not of a team in puberty, but fully grown up.

This is the biggest point to come out of the campaign and in reality, did not surprise me due to the culture, template and mindset surrounding the Northern Ireland camp. Various other things come to the fore on reflection. The team really had to dip into the squad more than normal due primarily to injuries. In most of Northern Ireland’s history, this would have derailed things. McNair, Ward, Cathcart, McAuley, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce, Hughes and Chris Brunt all missed significant chunks of the tournament. To withstand that on an ability basis as well as mentally says so much about the team. In any conflict, he that withstands more will be the winner.

If we are going to do that we should look at those that did the withstanding and some soldiers stood particularly tall. Some players did not miss a game. The most senior and probably most important players unsurprisingly are right in there taking the salute as we speak. Jonny Evans and Steve Davis, respective vice-captain and captain continued their exalted play from France and held much together on the pitch. Other Privates First Class now earned stripes – primarily Magennis, McLaughlin, Norwood and Dallas. Those six players stood mighty.

Their stories actually tell plenty about the campaign. Magennis scored three goals with his brace finally breaking down an obdurate San Marino. His final goal against Germany whilst a token actually said much about the progress we had made in three games against Germany. His performance against Azerbaijan at home was ferocious and marked him down as a team rather than a squad player.

Conor McLaughlin is an absolute fixture on the right of defence and is much more comfortable going forward with the ball. His goal against Azerbaijan was more than a landmark and he stands now an experienced international of thirty odd caps. His performance at home to the Czechs for me was his best yet.

Dallas scored perhaps the most important goal of the series for us with that last minute moment in Baku. His performances wavered at times but his cover for Brunt is noticed when he is not there. He remains and maintains our balance on the left. Norwood likewise can have average games, but he remains the ticking heartbeat of the side and enables others to do their thing through his positional discipline and passing. He sometimes gets caught in possession in dangerous areas but fifty caps tells a reliable story.

This spreading of the goals is a big statement. For three defenders out of four to score at home to Azerbaijan is a bit of a mouth opener – for any team. Yes, the team is still set – piece dependent but ten different scorers is another leap forward, especially since it makes us less dependent on Kyle Lafferty. Kyle indeed had a mixed series but the fact that this was not critical is another big endorsement for the team and their approach to games.

As mentioned in a previous column various players needed and received beneficial transfers. Not every player is getting the game time we or they would all like, but selfishly sometimes I feel the balance suits us well with players not being too fatigued or overexposed to injury and thus being able to maintain that hunger for international time.

Other challenges showed the solidity and steadiness of the side. The fact that the team when required were able to avoid yellow cards in the significant last four matches shows the inward discipline they possess, even if it may have blunted the spear away to Norway.

The ‘patience not panic’ aura that the team now have manifested itself well in a last minute goal against Azerbaijan and also was evident in the both San Marino games. Conversely, the game management of the Windsor game against the Czech Republic showed a maturity in a game with little possession.

It was good to see Chris Brunt get a couple of goals which was great reintegration for him. The two ‘Ws’, Washington and Ward, applied themselves in different but important ways. Washington’s first competitive goal against Norway was a big one and also his cross for Magennis’ header in Serravalle. The team badly missed Ward’s pace in the final games.

George Saville’s two appearances were a welcome addition as creative central midfield is an area that we are light. His willingness to run with the ball and confidence in his ability will be very useful in the immediate future. The team still need to be fully ‘at it’ – mentally more than anything to be at their best. The Norway away game illustrated this well and whilst a friendly, the Croatia match showed this too. It was good to see Tom Flanagan get his first cap against New Zealand and he showed enough to suggest he can provide cover. Liam Boyce took his goal very well and he has the confidence now to be a starting player as was seen in Baku.

There were a few games where I felt that they were having difficulty getting a full ninety-minute performance together but this is nitpicking. Tactically after another ten high octane games the manager has played a stormer rarely getting it wrong though like Poland in Nice, the three at the back v Germany was a mistake.

This is all good stuff but the concession of six goals in three competitive games out of ten is such a testament to the tactics, experience, learning and discipline of the team. Any team will always play better with that wall of iron behind it. It is not all last ditch tackles either but more an automatic shape that systematically denies space, angle and opportunity to any threats. It is very difficult to play against but with disciplined players, it is easy to engage.

Well done to all concerned. It is another year that will sit well in our history. Now……November.