Belfast Telegraph

I'm a free transfer: Conor Washington and Josh Magennis put themselves in shop window with Northern Ireland heroics

Conor Washington (left) and Josh Magennis celebrate a goal they would both claim (Steven Paston/PA)
Conor Washington (left) and Josh Magennis celebrate a goal they would both claim (Steven Paston/PA)
Listen up: Josh Magennis celebrates his winning strike with Conor Washington

By Paul Ferguson

In the space of three dramatic minutes at the A Le Coq Arena in Tallinn on Saturday night, the future job prospects of Northern Ireland strikers Conor Washington and Josh Magennis increased greatly.

Northern Ireland were trailing 1-0 with time running out, they hadn't tested Estonian goalkeeper Sergei Lepmets, boss Michael O'Neill had played his hand by using all three substitutes and their Euro 2020 qualifying hopes, with Germany and the Netherlands coming up in the autumn, looked dashed.

Yet unemployed Washington, released by Premier League new boys Sheffield United last month, burst into the box on 77 minutes to fire home Northern Ireland's equaliser after a slight deflection from Magennis.

Then, with the Estonian players still in disbelief, Bangor-born Magennis, who looks set to leave Bolton Wanderers with the club in administration, flicked the ball home, after excellent work from wing wizard Jordan Jones, to change the whole complexion of the game and the qualifying series.

Northern Ireland sit proudly at the top of Group C on nine points - three ahead of Germany, who beat Belarus 2-0 on Saturday. The Midas touch of manager O'Neill had worked wonders again.

His three second-half substitutes - Washington, Jones and Magennis - made the team wearing white in Tallinn a much more attacking force as Estonia really struggled to deal with the pace and trickery of Jones, the relentless aggression of Washington and Magennis' strength and power up front.

And with their introductions, O'Neill may have just played a role in finding new employment opportunities for Washington and Magennis.

"To any manager listening out there, I'm a free transfer," joyous Washington exclaimed.

"It was nice to get back playing and hopefully I've changed my destiny. No offers have come in yet, nothing concrete anyway. There are few whispers here and there but hopefully performances like that will give me a good chance of finding a new club.

"It was great to be part of a team that got promoted (Sheffield United) but I didn't play as much as I'd have liked, so I'm looking to change that for next season."

Magennis was thrilled to have netted Northern Ireland's winning goal for the second successive game after his strike in the 2-1 victory over Belarus in March.

"When coming off the bench you just have to make sure you make an impact and it's not time wasted, you're not just getting on for the sake of getting on and I think the subs did that," admitted 28-year-old Magennis.

"Conor and I are involved in the goals but Jordan was unbelievable on the wing. It's absolutely fantastic to be on the scoresheet but so much goes into getting the ball into the back of the net so we'll take confidence from that and look forward to Belarus."

There was some doubt over who actually scored Northern Ireland's first goal as Washington's shot struck Magennis on the way into the net. Uefa credited the goal to Washington.

Magennis added: "If it didn't hit me it was going to go in anyway but it got a nick. I looked at the linesman and thought, 'Is he going to flag?' because I was worried I was offside.

"We're both strikers so we're both going to claim it and then we'll let Uefa decide after that."

For the majority of the game it appeared Northern Ireland, like on so many previous occasions, were going to be the architects of their own downfall.

O'Neill's men started on the front foot, forcing the Estonians to retreat, but a lack of match sharpness and unforced errors - most notably failing to keep possession and a poor final ball - massively impacted on their momentum in the game.

On 24 minutes, when Stuart Dallas failed to intercept a pass intended for Sergei Zenjov, the Leeds man was forced to bring down the Estonian to stop him racing into the box.

But from the resulting 25-yard free-kick, skipper Konstantin Vassiljev drilled the ball just around the wall and into the corner of Bailey Peacock-Farrell's goal.

At the back, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart, who made a number of vital blocks, gave their usual neat and tidy performance, Jamal Lewis, with his pace and lovely technique, was a threat down the left flank, Paddy McNair showed plenty of endeavour and Peacock-Farrell made some fine saves.

But captain Steven Davis and George Saville were below par while striker Liam Boyce, with little service, also struggled.

Boss O'Neill had sympathy with his players - considering the time of year these matches take place in and with the game being played in considerable heat with the mercury rising to 28 degrees.

He admitted: "The timing of these games is always difficult for players, we've seen that in the Nations League with even the top players making mistakes at the end of a long season.

"We've a lot of players here who are possibly not coming off their best season in their club careers, not played a lot, some are looking for a club, they're here to be part of a squad to try and get results for qualification so they deserve an enormous amount of credit.

"I'm proud to be associated with them. They're not selfish, the modern day player is typically quite selfish but this group of players aren't."

On previous occasions, especially playing in such heat, Northern Ireland teams have wilted but here, quite literally, the class of 2019 found the reserves to come back and recover from a deficit.

Northern Ireland also survived an Estonian goal disallowed for a barge on Peacock-Farrell and Vassiljev hitting a blistering shot off the bar in the second half.

"I think it is a lot down to the preparation, our training camps in Manchester and Austria, and the commitment of the players," maintained O'Neill.

"I don't think we could have turned up and just prepared for four days with the gap in the season.

"I thought as the game went on we actually looked the sharper and fitter team, we didn't deal with the ball as well as we should have done in the first half, playing down a gear and not getting the intensity we would have liked.

"That's something we need to improve because I think we'll be tested in Borisov."

Northern Ireland, having stayed an extra day in Tallinn, will fly into Minsk this morning for their match against Belarus tomorrow evening.

It is a game, just like this one against Estonia, that they must win to be in contention for qualification from Group C when they come to take on Germany and the Netherlands in the autumn.

O'Neill is expecting Northern Ireland to be galvanised by their win in Tallinn.

"We've got three points from a game we were in danger of losing, possibly very damaging to our hopes and we've got a victory out of it. That helps with fatigue and physical tiredness," said O'Neill.

"The mental tiredness as much as the physical is what you have to combat and when you win like that you're obviously ready for the next one and that will be a big factor for us on Tuesday."

It should also be another glorious chance for Washington and Magennis to enhance their CVs for the job market.

Estonia: Lepmets, Sinyavskiy, Mets, Vihmann, Pikk, Dmitrijev, Teniste (Kams, 85 mins), Vassiljev, Kait (Tamm, 85 mins), Sappinen (Sorga, 61  mins), Zenjov. Unused subs: Aksalu, Miller, Puri, Ojamaa, Kreida, Roosnupp, Kallaste, Kuusk, Meerits.

Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell, Smith (Jones, 64 mins), Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis, McNair, Davis, Saville (Magennis, 69 mins), Whyte, Boyce (Washington, 46 mins), Dallas. Unused subs: Hazard, McLaughlin, McAuley, K Lafferty, Ferguson, C Evans, Flanagan, Thompson, McGovern.

Referee: Fabio Verissimo (Portugal)

Man of the match: Josh Magennis

Match rating: 7/10

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