Michael O’Neill knows Saturday’s 3-0 win over San Marino was only a small step forward for his Northern Ireland side but it is still one he said can be important for a young and developing side.
Paul Smyth got a goal and an assist on his first international start while there was also a first Northern Ireland goal for Conor McMenamin, with Josh Magennis getting another in a comfortable win at Windsor Park.
But while Northern Ireland were always in control, 2-0 up after 11 minutes, the limitations which have seen their qualifying campaign unravel with five straight defeats since an opening victory over the same opposition in March were again on show in an often unexciting display.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) October 14, 2023
Northern Ireland finished the match with five players eligible for the under-21s on the pitch, once more deprived of much-needed experience by their long injury list.
“For a number of our players they won’t have won a lot of games in international football, they’ve not played a lot of games in international football and they’ve not won a lot, so any win is positive,” O’Neill said.
“It’s a good feeling, you feel it in the dressing room. We can take that feeling into Tuesday night’s game (against Slovenia) when there’s a team coming who have got a lot to play for.”
Having raced into an early lead and then seen a 31st-minute strike from star man Smyth eventually disallowed for offside after a long VAR check, Northern Ireland lost momentum and the atmosphere fell flat before McMenamin completed the scoring in the 81st minute.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) October 15, 2023
This was only Northern Ireland’s third win in their last 18 games at Windsor Park but even then the crowd was quiet, artificially boosted at one point by the sound of chanting being played on the PA system.
That reflected Northern Ireland’s standing in Group H, where the only team they have avoided defeat against is the one ranked 207th and last in the world.
“All we can do is just continue to work with the players, build them up, try and get confidence,” O’Neill added.
“When you’re working with a new group of players and working on how you want to play as a team, results help build belief in what you’re doing and that’s the biggest thing the win will give us, a little bit of belief.
“The work we did in the week was pretty much how the opening two goals were scored and that’s something the players took well into the game.”
Talk of the injuries that have ravaged Northern Ireland’s campaign is nothing new, but there is no denying their impact and it extends well beyond the headlines names of Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, and Corry Evans, stretching deep into Northern Ireland’s limited reserves.
“Even if you look at Conor Bradley, he’s only played three games for us in this campaign and that’s probably all he will play if I’m honest,” O’Neill added of the Liverpool wing-back. “November will be very touch and go for Conor. That makes it difficult.”
The hope for O’Neill and Northern Ireland is that there is something to be gained down the line as so many of those players still around from the famous Euro 2016 campaign near the end of the road.
“We have to use what we have done, mainly through necessity, to take us forward because the players we talk about that are missing, we’re not really sure how long they will continue to play for at international level,” the manager added.
“We’ve already seen Craig (Cathcart) retire. These players won’t continue forever.
“What we have to do between now and March 2025 when World Cup qualification starts is we’ve got to get as much international football into these young players as possible because they will probably form the foundation and the backbone of the team.”
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