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Monday 30 May 2016

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Michael O'Neill proud to eclipse Northern Ireland record with Slovenia win

Published 28/03/2016

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland made it 10 games without defeat on Monday night
Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland made it 10 games without defeat on Monday night

Michael O'Neill spoke of his pride at eclipsing a record his old international boss Billy Bingham set in the 1980s as Northern Ireland made it 10 games unbeaten with a 1-0 win over Slovenia in Belfast.

A first-half goal from recent call-up Conor Washington, who had set foot in the country only once before, and a second-half penalty save from Roy Carroll made from Milivoje Novakovic took Northern Ireland's streak without defeat into double figures.

It was Bingham's team who had set the benchmark en route to the World Cup in 1986 and O'Neill's side have now bettered it during a run where they also become the first team since to reach a major international tournament.

"It's great for this group of players," said O'Neill.

"There's players that have gone 10 games without a win, the opposite side of that, and played in bad times. We're in this moment, we want it to last as long as we can keep it there.

"It's nice for me because Billy Bingham was the manager who gave me my debut at 18 years of age, he believed in me at a young age. I've tried to take that into management in terms of giving players opportunities."

One of those players given a chance over this slate of international fixtures was Washington, a 23-year-old Kent-born forward who once worked as a postman and progressed through the non-league ranks.

The QPR striker was underwhelming on his 45-minute international debut in Wales last Thursday, but he may have done enough in a man-of-the-match performance at Windsor Park to ensure he is in France in June.

Having been thwarted by Jan Oblak moments earlier, his goal came when he barged Miral Samardzic and then Nejc Skubic off the ball before he cut inside Bostjan Cesar and fired home.

"The first time I saw Conor play was against Luton in the second round of the FA Cup and he scored a goal in the exact same area of the pitch," O'Neill added.

"He loves to get into that tussle with a centre-back, the physical side of the game, but equally when he gets in there he has the ability to show a bit of quality. On that occasion he had a great finish with his right foot into the top corner.

"The chance before I thought he manufactured it great. He showed really good composure to drag it onto his left, the goalkeeper saves it.

"Equally you see what Conor Washington is about - that rawness, that power, that pace, sometimes you don't get that from players who are in a development system from a very young age.

"He has those attributes, which are refreshing to see as a coach; he's so hungry to learn and keen to do well. It's great.

"For a player who has just come into the squad, the reaction from the other members in the team to him scoring shows how well he's fitting in."

If they avoid defeat in their final two friendlies against Belarus and Slovakia, Northern Ireland will enter Euro 2016 having not lost in a dozen fixtures.

However, having been drawn in a group featuring world champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine, Slovenia boss Srecko Katanec knows they are facing an uphill challenge.

"If I think objectively, then they don't have that many chances," Katanec said of their chances of progressing to the knock-out stages.

"They play really, really tough teams. On the other hand, they have a specific style of play and it can happen that they can score and pull back and not concede.

"Their opponents at the European Championship are probably a few of the best teams at the European Championship. I wish the team a lot of success."

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