Belfast Telegraph

I'm out to prove I can make key contribution as Northern Ireland's third man, says Flanagan

 

Rising high: Tom Flanagan heads clear under pressure from Czech Republic’s Patrik Schick
Rising high: Tom Flanagan heads clear under pressure from Czech Republic’s Patrik Schick
Tom Flanagan battling against Jan Kopic

By Paul Ferguson

Hugely popular defender Tom Flanagan hopes his international future will abide by the old adage, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

The Sunderland centre-back, after waiting so long in the wings, excelled alongside vastly experienced Premier League stars Jonny Evans and Craig Cathart in a reworked back three during Monday night's impressive 3-2 friendly win over the Czech Republic in Prague.

Boss Michael O'Neill often used a three-man defence, with wing-backs, to incorporate Gareth McAuley with Evans and Cathcart prior, during and after the Euro 2016 finals.

Now Flanagan, well aware he would be unable to usurp the former Manchester United duo unless injury dictated, wants to be part of a Northern Ireland defensive triumvirate in next month's Euro 2020 qualifiers against European giants Netherlands and Germany.

And the 27-year-old, who has played six times for the League One Black Cats this season, insists he is striving to match the qualities shown by Evans and Cathcart.

In just his fourth Northern Ireland appearance, Flanagan produced his most sparkling display in a green shirt against a determined Czech outfit - he was strong in the air, timed his tackles well, held the line and was disciplined.

"I want to be where Craig and Jonny are so I speak to Craig and Jonny during the week. I'm not a kid, but I want to learn because I want to be where they are," admitted London-born Flanagan, who qualifies through Omagh-born relatives.

"My big thing in Prague was to play well and have a good performance so that when Michael plans for Germany or Holland and he wants to play a three, he can trust me.

"It's all about trust at this level. Obviously he thinks I'm good enough because he calls me into the squad and I understand why I don't play as much because of who's in front of me.

"As a centre-half you don't make a lot of substitute appearances, so hopefully I've put a thought into Michael's head and maybe put my name forward for the next two games."

It was the second time Flanagan has played in a back three at international level after making his debut alongside Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes in the international friendly against New Zealand in 2017.

In Prague, he played on the left-hand side of the three with Stuart Dallas acting as his wing-back, but he looked comfortable, assured and linked well with his more experienced top-flight defenders.

"I've played left of a three at Sunderland a bit at the start of the season. I've also played left-back loads of times for Burton in the Championship so I'm happy to play there," stressed Flanagan.

"I'm comfortable on the left and I was pleased to play with Jonny and Craig because I hadn't played with both of them before.

"I've played beside Jonny but not Craig before, so I can't ask for much more than playing alongside two Premier League centre-halves. I really enjoyed it."

Northern Ireland stormed into a surprising 3-0 half-time lead against the Czechs at the sparsely-attended Generali Arena through a Paddy McNair double and Evans' fourth international goal.

The Czechs, who made 10 changes from the side that beat England last Friday night, brought on major reinforcements at half-time and two quick-fire goals with just 23 minutes left changed the complexion of the game.

"I was pleased. Two very different halves of football, but it was good," conceded Flanagan.

"We had a game plan and we stuck to it in the first half and executed it very well.

"With the Czechs being at home, they couldn't be seen to rest on their laurels and after their previous result (against England) they needed to come out, so we expected a reaction.

"They threw on some of their bigger hitters and gave us a real test. They didn't really work from a shape late on so the last 10 minutes was a bit of organised chaos.

"But we stood up and George (Saville) came on and made two or three great blocks which shows while it's a friendly we really care about it.

"The goals came so close together and that put us under pressure, but I felt we dealt with it well after that and it was a good all-round performance.

"We could have lost after the Holland game and people would be looking at us thinking they've lost three on the bounce, so to win this game was great."

While Flanagan started in Prague, he was an 87th-minute substitute in Rotterdam last Thursday night when the Dutch destroyers broke Northern Ireland's hearts with two dramatic injury-time goals to seal a 3-1 win.

For the Netherlands' go-ahead goal, Flanagan managed to get his head to the cross but despite thinking the ball would go out of play, it fell to Luuk de Jong, who somehow managed to score at the second attempt.

Flanagan admits he will self-reflect on his contribution at De Kuip stadium.

"It was great to come on and play in a competitive game against players of that calibre," added Flanagan. "It was devastating how it ended and you can't help but look at yourself when you come on and it's 1-1 and you walk off losing 3-1, so a bit of self-reflection is needed.

"So I'll go away and have a think about it, watch the game, speak to some of the coaches here and get some feedback."

In the wake of Netherlands' late win, Dutch manager Ronald Koeman caused consternation after describing Northern Ireland's style of play as "outrageous" and "terrible to watch".

Flanagan laughed off his barbs as averting attention from his own side's failings.

"Hopefully that maybe comes back to bite him in Belfast," smiled Flanagan.

"He maybe felt he had to put the onus onto us and say we were terrible instead of reflecting on his own team's performance and pointing a few fingers there."

The Dutch will be in Belfast on November 16 for what could be a highly-explosive return clash.

And Flanagan, after his performance in Prague, could now be part of the revenge mission.

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