Belfast Telegraph

No stopping our Northern Ireland invincibles

By Steven Beacom

All hail Michael O'Neill's Invincibles. Record-breakers. History-makers. It's now TEN games in a row without defeat. No Northern Ireland team has ever done that before.

It wasn't too long ago that O'Neill's Northern Ireland side were losing to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.

Now they are proving to be unbeatable.

Last night's dramatic 1-0 victory against Slovenia at Windsor Park, secured by a brilliant finish from Conor Washington on his home debut and Roy Carroll's second-half penalty save, continued an undefeated run that started a year ago with a 2-1 victory at home to Finland during the successful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

Read more: Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness celebrate Northern Ireland's record-breaking Slovenia win

Who knows when it will end? What we do know is that, by moving to 10 successive games without a loss, O'Neill's modern day heroes have eclipsed the deeds of Billy Bingham's legends from yesteryear.

Between November 1979 and October 1980 and March 1985 and June 1986, Bingham's teams put together nine-match unbeaten runs. Now that record has been surpassed. Inspirational manager O'Neill and this special group of players won't be content though to stick with 10 games. They will want to go to 11 in the Windsor friendly against Belarus in May and 12 when they travel to Slovakia in June just before the Euro finals.

The more momentum Northern Ireland can build up before facing Poland, Ukraine and Germany in France the better.

Before last night's match O'Neill had considered resting some of his senior stars, but they told him they wanted to start to be part of the history-making bid. It was no surprise then to see a strong side at kick-off with O'Neill operating the 3-5-2 system he started with against Wales in last week's 1-1 draw.

In goal Carroll took over from Michael McGovern, who had a steady outing in Cardiff, with Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart at the back and Michael Smith and Shane Ferguson operating as wing-backs.

A few years ago Peterborough's Smith was playing with Ballyclare Comrades and Ballymena United.

Here he was making his international debut and thinking about going to the Euro finals.

The midfield was anchored by Paddy McNair alongside captain Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood, who had the distinction of being the only player to start all 10 games in the historic run.

With Kyle Lafferty on the bench, Jamie Ward and Washington were up front. The latter had never set foot inside Windsor before this week.

What a way to announce his arrival in the stadium by scoring just before the break with a superbly taken goal. Carroll's long goal kick made its way to the QPR striker and he displayed power and pace to see off the Slovenian defenders before rifling in a right-foot shot into the Kop end net.

How the Green and White Army enjoyed Washington's outstanding finish.

It wasn't his first goal in Belfast, having netted in a friendly for Peterborough against Cliftonville at Solitude last July, but this one was far more important.

In that instant the 23-year-old booked his seat on the plane to France.

Four years ago one-time postman Washington was playing for St Ives in the Southern Football League. Come the summer the striker, who qualifies for Northern Ireland thanks to a Belfast grandmother, will be preparing to meet World Champions Germany in Paris.

Prior to his opening international goal, Washington had been extremely lively, forcing Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak into a fine save in a first half in which Ward was like a terrier and Ferguson showed willing down the left flank with some inviting crosses. Ward and Washington were so fired up they each picked up a booking either side of the break.

The second half was notable for a flurry of substitutions which saw Aaron Hughes, winning his 98th cap, Lafferty, Stuart Dallas, Josh Magennis, Conor McLaughlin and Niall McGinn all afforded rousing receptions when they came on.

There was an even bigger roar on 64 minutes when Carroll saved Milivoje Novakovic's penalty. The Fermanagh man dived to his right to keep out the Slovenian substitute after Evans was ruled to have fouled Miral Samardzic in the box.

Victory sealed. Northern Ireland go marching on.

Belfast Telegraph