Michael O’Neill had no doubts about it. When speaking last week about the most important thing he had learnt since becoming Northern Ireland manager, he stated: “Getting my key players out on the pitch.”
In the opening three Euro 2016 qualifiers that has largely been the case, so O’Neill’s point is clearly a valid one.
The only front line player to have missed the entire campaign to date is Jonny Evans.
Even the Manchester United defender, though, could not have performed any better than Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley at centre back.
Hughes and McAuley are two of NINE players to have started every Euro game so far.
The others are Roy Carroll, Conor McLaughlin, Chris Baird, Oliver Norwood, Steven Davis, Jamie Ward and Kyle Lafferty.
That’s what O’Neill is talking about... getting his ‘key players out on the pitch’. The sum total of that has added up to nine points out of nine.
For Northern Ireland’s previous qualifying campaign and O’Neill’s first in charge, only six of the same players kicked off the opening three games. Two points were won back then.
You do the maths. Northern Ireland need their big hitters. They can get away with losing one like Evans, but when it goes beyond that things start to become tough.
That’s why O’Neill will be so disappointed that captain Davis and Ward won’t be in Romania for tomorrow’s latest Euro qualifier.
An already testing contest for Northern Ireland became a whole lot harder when it was confirmed that Davis and Ward would be absent due to injuries.
Ward has been on fire in this campaign, working hard for his own team and causing problems for the opposition. And of course he scored an early goal in Greece that paved the way for victory.
Skipper Davis has been even more influential. Everyone looks up to the Cullybackey man and when he plays well, as has been the case in the Euro fixtures, the rest of the side tend to follow suit. He is a leader in every sense.
The former Rangers star may not be one of those captains who shouts a lot — some of them do that to be seen as much as heard. Rather he exudes a quiet air of confidence on and off the field which has played as much a part in Southampton’s outstanding start to the season as it has for Northern Ireland.
Steven’s self-belief has been infectious, with his team-mates picking it up.
Difficult it may be without Davis, if the team maintain their missing captain’s assurance and positive approach, they have a chance of securing another excellent result.