Belfast Telegraph

Win over Russia inspirational for younger Northern Ireland players

By Steven Beacom

IT wasn't just Michael O'Neill and his players who had much to celebrate after last month's shock World Cup victory over Russia....according to the Irish FA's Elite Performance Director Jim Magilton the 1-0 success at Windsor Park was a massive boost for EVERYONE connected with football in Northern Ireland.

And he revealed it has had a knock-on effect, proving inspirational to our young players hoping to make the grade across the water and eventually become fully fledged internationals themselves.

No wonder then that Magilton is hoping for another stunning result when Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo are in Belfast on Friday for a Group F qualifier.

Magilton, a cultured and classy midfielder who won 52 caps for Northern Ireland, took up his new IFA post in July. The 44-year-old is responsible for all elite player development for youngsters here and is overseeing the association's coach education programme.

He's been putting in the miles up and down the country to speak to the IFA's regional coaches and to monitor the talent that is out there.

The football folk in the west of the province were delighted that Magilton took time to visit recently. For far too long officials in Fermanagh have been left thinking that the IFA weren't interested in life or football beyond the Ballygawley roundabout.

Remember this is a county that unearthed Roy Carroll, Michael McGovern and Kyle Lafferty, all in O'Neill's squad for the Portugal game.

The key element for Magilton is ensuring that the top kids coming through the ranks here are given the correct coaching and advice in order for them to progress and make moves to top level clubs in England and Scotland, which in turn would benefit the national team manager, who would have more players performing at a high level to choose from.

With the vast numbers of foreigners coming into the British game, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Northern Ireland teenagers to break through.

Magilton  has enthusiasm and energy. He also possesses the knowledge and experience to be a success as the IFA's Elite Performance Director, having played almost 600 games in England with the likes of Oxford United, Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town.

He knows all too well though that high-profile successes for the senior side, such as the victory over Fabio Capello's Russian team, can help him enormously.

"It was a massive result for everyone involved in football here. If you are successful at the highest level of the game it should filter through to grassroots level," said Magilton, speaking to me at Windsor Park.

"It was a terrific performance by the team and when you are part of football in Northern Ireland a display and result like that provides a real lift. From a personal perspective it makes my job easier because there is even more co-operation and support from people in terms of what we are trying to achieve at the IFA.

"Young players were inspired by seeing Northern Ireland beat a big nation like Russia and now it is up to us to use that when we are working with and trying to develop them to get more playing at the highest level across the water. That in turn gives the international manager more options and healthy competition moving forward, so it is good for everyone.

"I'd love to see us beat Portugal as well. That is going to be another big game and motivation will not be a factor.

"There will be fabulous players coming to Windsor Park including, of course, Ronaldo.

"It will be difficult because Portugal will not take Northern Ireland for granted, but I'm expecting another top-class performance from our team. It really is a mouthwatering prospect."

Still in the early stages of his work with the IFA, who handed him a four-year contract, Magilton added: "I'm enjoying it. It has been a case of meeting and greeting and getting to speak to a lot of people across the province. I've met a lot of good people who all share the same opinion that we want to do our best to give our youngsters an opportunity to play football at the highest level.

"I understand there has been a lot of good work done already and the Irish FA deserve a great deal of credit for that.

"They have decided they want to identify our best young players. We need to give those kids quality input and the tools to make them feel comfortable when they make the move to hopefully Premier League clubs and Scottish Premiership clubs so that they are confident enough to go there and produce.

"I'm operating very much with an open door policy. I can't and will not be able to do anything without the co-operation of people around the country.

"I'll need feedback from them about players which is vitally important and then if I can do anything for them to help them in terms of coaching I will do that. Together we can be stronger and more pro-active for the future of Northern Ireland football."

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