The headlines jumping at us after Northern Ireland’s victory over South Korea rightly circled substitute, debutante and season-starting Linfield player, Paul Smyth’s late winner. A goal created for the west Belfast lad by his fellow west London team mate Conor Washington. As it ignited the crowd it may well have struck the last match for Will Grigg who quite possibly has seen the last chance he picks and chooses when to play for Northern Ireland go down in flames. Apologies, but we may not get the opportunity for this sort of stuff again.
Reflecting on a good result but more importantly a brilliant few days for Northern Ireland it seemed as if the glorious sunshine inside the ground was being beamed out rather than in. As I mentioned last week there were a lot of things hanging around this match if we go along with the idea that this was the ‘recranking’ up of the green machine after a Romanian rocket hitting it hard on Swiss withers. The team in its ice blue new away strip were ice cool in firing the spring offensive into action. Unlike the German one a hundred years ago this week in Flanders, this one should carry on beyond.
Working from the outside in if you like let’s look at all this ‘boomjack good time’ that tends to manifest itself in the family type smiling photographs the press like to post. The start of the week saw a marvellous occasion where the manager correctly identified a space where both the U21s and senior team were able to sit amongst each other for a dinner in their Culloden Hotel lair. The spirit of togetherness and unity this engendered should become excellent future bonding material. Both senior and junior squads appeared to enjoy it immensely. For the newer members of both squads what a way to start an international week. It was an excellent means by which the manager showed he meant business in his added role as Chief Football Officer though I doubt that is on his business card.
Thursday proved to be a bit of a key day insofar as a couple of things brought everyone to the start line with a bit of ‘here we go’. Four pretty big players were ruled out by injury thus highlighting to those who would play that the stabilisers won’t be on. The biggest of these being captain Steve Davis whose last missed match was a sobering twenty- eight games ago against Qatar in May 2015. Now that’s leadership and I think even then that was to rest some Premiership players. In reality though this match was about bringing fresh players on board so in theory no story here. If this was ‘negative’ the news that the game was sold out highlighted to the new ones that you will now be driving on the motorway.
The U21’s creditable performance on Thursday in their defeat to Spain was another plus and everything was still in forward gear. Some of the interviews before Saturday’s game just brimmed with pride and anticipation. Killyleagh man and Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson who has travelled with the squad for four years told of how it would mean the world to him to win his first cap. As a side issue this would allow him to be up on the mural in Frederick Street in the town. This mural celebrates previous local internationals Healy, Davey and Cochrane who no doubt will be equally happy to have him alongside. Jamal Lewis who at twenty has just broken into the Norwich side spoke of his excitement at playing at Windsor for the first time and how his mother Catriona would be over for the game. Great human stories. That’s when you are pleased that the fans are turning out to show that it matters to them too.
So as mentioned the sun spilled all over Windsor. A lot of times in friendly matches at Windsor you can tell that a lot of regulars aren’t there and a reserve set of fans are in. No problem there and it was clear that for many it was their first time at Windsor. It’s not hard to identify them but sunny days with victories are a good starting point as for many that has been a target too ambitious over the years. The Switzerland debacle and the O’Neill saga seems to have brought more out to see what all the green fuss is all about. You are all welcome. As we zero into the football the match did not have the air of a friendly. The Korean Republic were on serious business in their World Cup preparation and we were too. Everyone seemed to understand this match was important as to the shape of the next green steps.
We had last won a match five games ago and had not scored for the last three games so heads down lads. The first twenty minutes were very interesting. Ring rust and a newish team aside, the technical brilliance of the Koreans had team and fans holding the bannisters. The NI team quickly realised what they were dealing with and for those of us who have faced what appear quicker, more skilled opponents it can have a paralysing effect that takes a while to shake off. Sometimes that time can never be recovered as you cannot get off the back foot. An early goal was no surprise as we struggled to get hold of the ball. The quality of the ball forward between Evans and Lewis was excellent and Carson had little chance. Everybody took a deep breath.
Young Lewis was having a tough baptism but helped by Jones and guided by Evans he found his feet. Jones had a great mazey run which helped the team and fans but Magennis was isolated and we were asking few questions. It was thought that physically we would have the mastery of them but actually I felt they were taking that battle to us as Aaron Hughes certainly would testify. This was apparent in the air especially where I felt they jumped into us frequently though I totally accept that their game is not in the skies. An initial physical battle might be just what we needed to get us out of this particular rut.
Another hit outside the area on George Saville gave us a free kick on the edge of the area and Norwood took charge in the same way he had stepped up to the media plate during the week as a more senior player. Much as I would love to see him score a clever move resulted in an own goal which was somewhat against the run of play. I found announcer Pete Snodden amusing when instead of trying to get through the name of the Korean own – goal scorer he just said “Northern Ireland – One, Korean Republic – One”. Good to see we still make hay from these set – pieces. This got us shaking the sleep out of our eyes a bit but Carson was still the busier keeper though ably helped out by his defence – a goal – saving intervention by McLaughlin particularly worthy of mention.
This continued into the second half and I would probably give man of the match to Carson who complemented a few excellent saves with command and assurance generally. Saville was putting himself about and that physical presence will be a great boost for the future. What did concern me a little was difficulty in moving the ball forward. The sight of the back four lumping it forward high and far as closer options vanish reduces us. This it could be argued applies generally to British football but for me it was particularly clear against the South Koreans who cut through us at times with ease. Yes, Steve Davis who does this role best for us was missing but we need to look at this.
The turning point for me in the game was when Josh Magennis was moved wide right where his bullocking power has more effect than being a lone forward. Washington and Boyce took us further up the field and Jones was able to widen the pitch. He looks to be very comfortable on the ball and had a decent debut. As mentioned last week I was delighted to see Cathcart and McNair get on and hear the manager talk about the mental importance of getting them back on the international horse. These are the things that highlight his broad thinking and of course this goes for Liam Boyce too.
Cherry bun of course was young Smyth coming back to his old patch and getting the winner. Fairy tales aside it was just what was needed on a tactical basis. Fit as they were, the South Koreans had much more Ulster beef on the table now to deal with and the goal Smyth scored as a result of Washington’s strength showed his game to a tee. The dart and angle the agile Smyth engineered gave him the space to inflict and we have several forwards alongside whom he will do plenty of damage. It could be argued that with their creative spark Son now off the pitch, the sun had gone down on the Koreans and slowly but surely we had got the measure of them.
The Koreans were very welcome visitors to Belfast both on and off the pitch and it will have done our new team no harm whatsoever to have come from behind against such tricky opponents. Not only have we done it without regular stalwarts but Carson, Saville, Jones, Lewis and Smyth have made it across the canyon and have their war stories to tell. Early days certainly, but there is serious competition for places in this side with positional and tactical choices available to the manager. I see central defence as the next pressure point as once Big G goes we need to look beyond Evans and Cathcart who should be good for perhaps another five or six years. Michael O’Neill will surely know that.
I look forward to the end of May as the green and white gringos hit Central America.