George McCartney admitted the 1-1 stalemate with Israel wasn’t always pretty on the eye last night but he insisted confidence remains high in the Northern Ireland camp ahead of showdowns that matter.
Manager Nigel Worthington was looking for a convincing performance to keep the feel-good factor bubbling ahead of the crucial World Cup qualifying double header next month.
The former Norwich City chief didn’t quite see his wish granted but McCartney was happy to walk off the pitch unbeaten once again
“The first half was not great,” he said. “We went one up and looked comfortable but we let them back into it. In the second half we passed the ball better and did more pressing. At times we did penetrate them.
“Friendly matches are not hugely important. These games are about keeping the boys’ spirits up and team bonding. We are building towards Poland and it was nice to give most of the lads a run out. Nigel can always learn something from the game but our main goal is World Cup qualification.”
Grant McCann’s stunning free-kick opened the scoring in the 18th minute but Genk striker Elyaniv Barda poked home from close range on 26 minutes to wipe out that advantage.
But Northern Ireland could have tasted defeat if Damien Johnson was not in the right place to head Tamir Cohen’s header off the line while Jonny Tuffey made a superb block to foil Roberto Collauti.
“It was a great goal by Grant who is on a bit of a roll in this campaign,” added the Sunderland defender. “Again tonight he smashed in a great goal. If you look back a year ago Grant was being overlooked for Northern Ireland but he is now in the team on merit and his performances are first class.”
Ipswich Town skipper Gareth McAuley, a half-time substitute, referred to the game as a “good work-out”.
“The players are just kicking off a new season and we aren’t flying just yet,” he said. “We are on an unbeaten run and building towards Poland where we are desperate to get a positive result to keep us on track for South Africa.
“It is all about the qualifiers, three massive games. There is no real added pressure on us — we expect to go out to Poland and get a result. We have the quality, togetherness and work ethic to go there and get something.”
It was another proud night for talisman David Healy who earned his 75th cap but the Sunderland striker once again drew a blank.
McAuley added: “David is a finisher. Give him half a chance and he will bury it. Any side would have David in their team but the good thing for us is that we have goals going in from around the team. Other lads are chipping in and it takes the burden off David.
“Grant chipped in tonight with a sublime goal. That is what he is capable of. In the last campaign David was out on his own scoring all the goals but other players have had to start finding the net. It won’t be long before David rediscovers his goalscoring touch.”