O'Neill's history boys
Delighted Paddy McNair gave his watching mum Claire an early birthday present by scoring his first international goal and Northern Ireland's winner with just four minutes remaining against Belarus here in sweltering Borisov last night.
Ballynure lad McNair was in dreamland as his dramatic late goal in a 1-0 win ensured Michael O'Neill's (right) side became the first team in Irish FA history to celebrate four consecutive wins at the start of a campaign. More importantly, they have secured 12 points and top Group C, three ahead of Germany, 8-0 winners over Estonia last night, and who they will meet in September.
McNair's mum and dad Alan flew out especially to watch him and the 24-year-old was thrilled they witnessed his special feat on his 29th appearance for his country.
"It was mad," confessed Middlesbrough ace McNair. "I've always wanted to score for Northern Ireland so it was an incredible feeling.
"It was also lovely to score in front of my mum and dad. It's also my mum's birthday so it was really nice and an early present for her.
"They don't get to many away games so I'll have to get them to come to more in the future."
McNair was just one of 14 Northern Ireland heroes on an energy sapping night in Borisov when victory was essential to give them a chance of competing for a qualifying spot with the mighty Germans and Dutch in the autumn.
Northern Ireland will play Germany at Windsor Park in September, travel to the Netherlands in October and then in November meet the Dutch in Belfast and finish against Germany in Frankfurt.
"It was an important goal to make it four wins from four and keep us top of the group, so overall it was a brilliant feeling," stated McNair.
"To be where we are, halfway through the campaign, is unbelievable and it definitely puts the pressure on Germany and Holland to keep winning games. They still have to come to Belfast and they know they'll have to beat us when the time comes.
"Being top of the group sounds nice and we'll enjoy it, but we know there's still a lot of work to do and our focus will soon turn to the games in September. We'll get our heads back on and hopefully do the job."
Northern Ireland have now struck late winners during their last three Euro 2020 qualifiers.
Josh Magennis fired home against Belarus in March, the Bolton striker repeated the magic against Estonia last Saturday night and now McNair, with the Northern Ireland players exhausted in Borisov, has sealed a memorable victory.
“It was brilliant and I think I was due one,” added McNair. “I got a bit of stick for missing one in Estonia so it was good to get on the scoresheet and what a time to get it so late on.
“I don’t know what went through my head when the ball hit the back of the net — it’s a bit of a blur. But I think the fitness amongst the lads is great and that showed, particularly in that heat. It was tough going but our fitness told towards the end and it was nice to get a win.”
Boss O’Neill had set his players a target of 12 points from their opening four games prior to the qualifying and that has now been achieved in incredible style.
“The aim was to have 12 points from 12 at the halfway point of the campaign and we’ve managed to achieve that so we now set our sights on Germany and Holland,” added McNair.
l Germany swept past Estonia with an 8-0 win in Mainz to continue their perfect start to the Group C campaign.
Marco Reus, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka were all on target in the opening 20 minutes.
Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan made it 4-0 from the penalty spot after Joonas Tamm had fouled Goretzka.
Borussia Dortmund’s Reus added another ahead of the break with a fine 25-yard free-kick. Gnabry scored a sixth on 62 minutes and substitute Timo Werner slotted in number seven with 10 minutes left, before Leroy Sane got on the scoresheet, curling in a left-foot shot in the 88th minute.