Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland must let wingers loose in Windsor Park double-header: Sproule


On target: Ivan Sproule scores the winning goal against Estonia in 2006
On target: Ivan Sproule scores the winning goal against Estonia in 2006

By Steven Beacom

Former Northern Ireland star Ivan Sproule is hoping Michael O'Neill unleashes his flying wingers on Estonia at Windsor Park tonight in the opening Euro 2020 qualifier.

Sproule scored the only goal of the game the last time Northern Ireland beat Estonia back in 2006 in Belfast, coming in off the flank to find the net.

In those days he was vying with Keith Gillespie for a place on the right wing. O'Neill is spoilt for choice on both sides with Stuart Dallas, Niall McGinn, Jordan Jones, Shane Ferguson, Gavin Whyte and Paul Smyth all wanting a piece of the action this evening.

"Stuart Dallas and Niall McGinn are very good out wide and versatile as well. You see with Stuart at Leeds that he can play a number of positions, and Niall is a seasoned campaigner who can play centre forward as well as out wide," said ex-Hibs hero Sproule, now working wonders as manager of Championship side Dergview.

"I know watching Niall with Aberdeen he is in a great run of form and scoring some good goals.

"The younger wingers like Gavin Whyte and Paul Smyth are exciting as well, and you also have Shane Ferguson at Millwall and Jordan Jones at Kilmarnock who are having good seasons. We have a lot of talent and strength in those areas.

"I remember Keith Gillespie was the man I was trying to get in ahead of on the right wing but he was a very special talent for Northern Ireland, and our current wingers must believe they can do things that he did.

"It's great for Michael that we have so many wingers. When you look at the other teams in the group like Holland and Germany, we will have to set up differently against them, but against the smaller nations, without disrespecting them, it's a game where wingers can be very dangerous and hopefully they will be let loose.

"They can get the crowd up and when that happens at Windsor Northern Ireland are a force to be reckoned with. We shouldn't be afraid to go and attack teams like Estonia and I'm sure our players would back themselves to do that."

Reflecting on his winning goal against Estonia, which came in Northern Ireland's first international since George Best's death in 2005 with Sproule wearing the No.7 shirt, the Castlederg man said: "For me it holds special memories for those reasons and everyone from my home town was up to watch me.

"It was a boyhood dream to get my first start, and early on the ball broke out to me and I managed to get myself in at the back post and smashed it in.

"I turned to run towards the fans and it was a fantastic feeling knowing my mum and family were in the stands. It proved to be the winning goal and it was a proud moment for all of us.

"I always remember leaving Windsor and my family driving me back to the team hotel in Templepatrick and the snow was coming down even though the game was in March."

Two years before Sproule's strike, David Healy's goal in Estonia in another friendly gave Northern Ireland a first win in 16 internationals.

It hasn't always been rosy against tonight's opposition. In 2011 a crushing 4-1 away defeat and a 2-1 loss at Windsor in the Euro qualifiers led to Northern Ireland being jeered off the pitch by their own fans on both occasions, and ultimately the departure of then manager Nigel Worthington.

Sproule won't be at the match tonight as he is training with Dergview ahead of an important Bluefin Sport Championship game at home to Limavady United on Saturday.

"Dergview takes priority for me right now. I'll have the game recorded though and I will then watch it afterwards. The green and white scarf will be sitting at the house waiting for me," he added.

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