Northern Ireland are 'as good as we've ever been' says Aaron Hughes after O'Neill's men push Netherlands and Germany close
Michael O'Neill's new Northern Ireland are as good a team as the nation has ever had.
That's according to legendary defender Aaron Hughes, who called time on his own playing career in June.
It's not just because of the departures of the old guard, with Gareth McAuley also hanging up his boots, that this feels like the dawning of a new era.
The boss is blooding his next crop, with the likes of Bailey Peacock-Farrell (22), Jamal Lewis (21) and Paddy McNair (24) now key players. More importantly, he has brought in a new playing style to go with the personnel changes.
The high-energy, high-pressing identity had a rough start with a 2018 that failed to yield a single competitive victory.
But four consecutive successes over Estonia and Belarus paved the way for even more impressive displays against Germany and the Netherlands in the two most recent outings.
Northern Ireland may have been beaten by both but will deservedly feel aggrieved about the two results.
Hughes knows all about putting it up to the great and the good of world football, having started in wins over England, Spain and Sweden.
So when he tipped his hat to the current crop for the nature of their recent displays, it was worth listening to.
"To be able to frustrate a side like Holland in Holland a compete with a team like Germany, that's where Northern Ireland have got to right now," he said on Sky Sports. "We're competing with teams like Germany and Holland now.
"We're never going to have the same amount of possession that they have. That's just not how we play and we don't have the individual players that they have but as a collective unit and a team that understands their roles, I think we're as good as anyone. We're as good as we ever have been. There are massive positives to take.
"3-1 flatters Holland. Look at how excited and relieved they were. That shows you have much we panicked them. We can look forward to the next two games, go in with the same attitude and application and hope we can get something."
It had looked like Northern Ireland might be about to claim their biggest scalp since the Spain victory of 06 when Josh Magennis headed in the opening goal with 15 minutes on the clock in Rotterdam.
Only two injury-time goals enabled the hosts to get the win.
"The effort that the lads put in, it was natural that they were going to get tired and start dropping off a bit," said Hughes. "The (equaliser) was a good finish. The lads are in good positions but he gets such a good touch on it and gets it away so quickly that they can't get to him.
"It's that little bit of quality that makes a difference. There are so many things to be positive about; competing with a team at that level, going there with a game-plan and frustrating them, the organisation and the discipline.
"I looked at the clock and thought it was set up perfectly for us (when Magennis put Northern Ireland ahead). At this stage in the game, it's set up for us to go and win because we can defend and we're solid. If we had won the game off the back of that, it would have been the best result we've had in a long, long time."
Next up, Northern Ireland will host the Netherlands on November 16, with a trip to face Germany in Frankfurt following three days later.
The next big upset is still up for grabs.
Belfast Telegraph Digital