So what club activity of relevance has happened to some of our heroes in green this summer? The end of last season happened for me on 10th June in the last minute of the last game. It ended in a 93rd minute winner by Stuart Dallas in Baku in Azerbaijan to land three precious and undeserved NI points in our bouncing laps. That was just dandy however more than a few players needed a change of club to keep them and us at peak performance. It’s blindingly obvious we need our players playing and I can remember the lack of it biting us a few times. In September ’09 a huge physical effort away to Poland cost us four days later at home to Slovakia, as lack of club game time took its toll on a few players. So a couple of months later what picture emerges as we look into the international pool?
The transfer that needed to happen more than anyone’s was of course that of Kyle Lafferty. He has effectively lost a couple of seasons in Norwich City’s reserves. Some may argue that he wasn’t playing regularly when he shot us to Euro ’16 qualification but there is little doubt that the inactivity has internationally caught up with him in the last year or so. He would have hurt badly at missing out on the famous Ukraine match in Lyon in France. Yes, he has scored three crucially important World Cup Qualifying goals but he certainly has not been first choice.
Josh Maginnis, Conor Washington and Liam Boyce had moved into his slot with adequate but varying degrees of success. I believe however that most fans and indeed Michael O’Neill feel he is the one to lead the line. For me his move to Hearts is a sensible and natural move. Austin McPhee is on the coaching staff of both set ups and wise old head Aaron Hughes will keep him on the straight and narrow. Michael Smith completes the Ulster playing triumvirate also. He did well in Scotland before and should have the maturity now to deal with the more febrile atmospheres he will encounter. It should be noted that his international boss also lives in Edinburgh so I am sure he doesn’t want to be sent to the ‘Headmaster’. As I write, Lafferty has five goals to his name and we look forward to more in maroon and green.
For me the next most urgent though perhaps not critical move that needed to happen was that of Conor McGlaughlin. He has been an absolute gem for the team and sitting on twenty-five caps enjoys the confidence of his manager to do right back or right-wing back. That is huge testament to him as a League One player so his move to Millwall one division up is both natural and deserved. He rarely misses games through suspension or injury and last season he scored goals too for club and country. He is possibly future captain material and this move could yield a South London Ulster full back pairing with Shane Ferguson.
The last of the ‘must moves’ for me was that of Number sixteen Ollie Norwood. His permanent residence in the NI midfield means he needs to be playing regularly. Those club appearances became piecemeal for Brighton last season and the runes forecast a stony beach for him. His landing by the Thames with Fulham is a great move and I expect his business to continue unhindered for club and country.
Liam Boyce’s move to Burton Albion was less obvious but I would say it was an obvious time to move. Top of the goalscoring charts in Scotland as well as two starts and a goal for Northern Ireland, his coat of arms flew high on his kite. A solid club where he could lead the line with a solid manager in Nigel Clough was a fine career move. His recent injury is a crippling blow but he will come back stronger and hungrier and appears determined not to miss out on Russia should it happen. We wish him luck.
Much was made last season as to where Niall McGinn might end up. Few would have bet his arrival south of the thirty-eighth parallel in South Korea would be his new home. Gwangju FC will be one interesting stop for him and one has to admire his sense of adventure. Selfishly, a few of us fans will worry about availability etc… but a few friendlies aside I don’t expect him to miss competitive games. Good luck Niall – avoid Guam for your holidays and is your dog going?
The remaining exiteers (there’s a topical contradiction for you) inhabit the fringes of the international side and their moves can only be considered as a positive in that direction. Michael Smith has one cap v Slovenia prior to the Euros and his move to Hearts from Peterborough should improve him as a player and help his profile. I think it will on both counts.
Matthew Lund has been collecting a few recent caps against Croatia, Norway and New Zealand and his move from Rochdale to Burton Albion again fits in with his upward shift. We will follow his progress with interest.
Ben Reeves’ career has stuttered a bit both at club and country and his joining Josh Maginnis at the Valley will hopefully lift him out of his figurative and actual career trough. One hopes that the turbulence surrounding Charlton Athletic will settle down for them both. Likewise Shay McCartan’s move up a division to Bradford City will maintain his forward propulsion. A goal flow and some spectacular free kicks at Accrington has earned him this move and he was warmly welcomed at Windsor Park for his first cap v New Zealand. It was good to see him score at the weekend.
Of course it can’t all be good news. Whilst a few plates get renewed spin a few start to wobble. Possibly the most serious is Michael McGovern’s at Norwich. We do need him playing with four massive World Cup games looming and his seat on the bench at their opening games is alarming.
Stuart Dallas may well have a battle on his hands too at Leeds and these things tend to go hand in hand with new managers. However he has just signed a new three year extension so the future looks white. As Gareth McAuley inches towards his retirement it was good to see his possible replacement Tom Flanagan make his debut against New Zealand. We hope he sorts his future out with Burton as it may or may not be with them as we speak. One player the side has missed has been Corry Evans following a long injury and we hope that he comes back to the force he was at Blackburn. He seems to have the support of manager Tony Mowbray there and already has a goal to his name this season. Paddy McNair would be more or less in the same boat and we hope he has a better season with Sunderland in a few weeks when he returns.
More locally Under 21 international Paul Smyth’s move from Linfield to QPR is a boost for the local game. It is important that this pathway is well used and there are hopes he could make his full debut for Northern Ireland in the next year or so if all goes well. The biggest question I feel is who will be the next Northern Irish Premiership representative. We have not had one for a while so we have hopes for Jack Chambers who appeared for West Bromwich Albion this summer in a friendly. No better club Jack- you are among friends.
Finally, since we are in that neck of the woods- well done to Jonny Evans on his new position as Captain of WBA. However, as is well documented he may well be a Manchester City player before he lands in San Marino. Those familiar with him will know that he is very capable of playing for Eastlands’ finest. His easy comfort on the ball is precisely why Guardiola sees him in his side. Selfishly, the only NI concern might be less availability for Northern Ireland for various reasons but Que Sera.
We wish all continued success.