Paddy McNair should be a key man for Middlesbrough, argues Stuart Dallas
Joker Stuart Dallas has cheekily said that Northern Ireland legend Aaron Hughes only prolonged his retirement from football until Paddy McNair finally scored his first international goal.
Veteran defender Hughes, who will turn 40 in November, announced in the dressing room after Northern Ireland's late 1-0 win over Belarus on Tuesday night that he was hanging up his boots. Cookstown's favourite son has been considering retirement for 18 months.
Rampaging McNair struck with just four minutes remaining at the Borisov Arena - the first time he has found the net for his country in 29 appearances.
The 24-year-old from Ballyclare showed tremendous skill to nutmeg a defender, race at speed into the box and, with the keeper committed, drill the ball into the back of the net.
"I'm delighted for Paddy. Hughesy said after he wasn't retiring until Paddy scored, so he can go out on a high now!" laughed Dallas.
"Paddy has been excellent. He's had a tough season at Middlesbrough. He should be playing more regularly in my eyes but he's proved what a really good player he is.
"He works hard, he's fit and his running ability allows him to be so powerful all over the pitch. You'd think the 90th minute was the first minute and it's a credit to him."
Tuesday's win in a hot and humid Borisov Arena, even though the game kicked off at 9.45pm local time, gave Northern Ireland a crucial three points in Euro 2020 qualifying and keeps the men in green top of Group C on 12 points - three ahead of the Germans, who hammered Estonia on the same night.
Michael O'Neill's men have secured exactly the start they targeted to this qualifying campaign - with four wins over Estonia and Belarus. They may have been the easier fixtures in a group that contains Germany and the Netherlands, but to put it into context, the last time Northern Ireland won an away double-header was back in 1993 when the international boss was starring in midfield.
"It doesn't matter who you are up against," said Dallas, who won his 40th cap from the bench on Tuesday. "These were two tough places to come; two games away from home in June. It's difficult, especially in that heat, but we're delighted we're going home with two wins and we can enjoy the summer holidays.
"Four wins at the start of a campaign has never been done before but we'll not get carried away. We'll enjoy the moment.
"At the start of the campaign we set out to get the four wins with the way the games fell for us - it was four must-win games, without being disrespectful to the opposition. It shows how far we've come that we come into these games expecting to win.
"It sets it up well now going into September. We have the friendly first (against Luxembourg) then it's Germany at home, which is massive."
Northern Ireland, despite their excellent start, face a monumental effort to reach their second successive Euro finals.
The high-scoring Germans are the visitors to Belfast in three months' time, Northern Ireland travel to Rotterdam to play the Netherlands in October and after the Dutch come to Belfast during the second week in November, they complete their series in Frankfurt against Germany.
Northern Ireland are a huge nine points clear of Ronald Koeman's side, who have two games in hand, and it seems their best hope is for the Orange Army to lose away to Germany in September and then for a big shock at Windsor Park in November.
Dallas emerged as a key player for Northern Ireland during the last Euro qualifying process and the Leeds ace would love for his proud country to repeat the feat and rewrite the history books.
"People maybe thought we'd just settle with that (qualification to the Euro 2016 finals) but it says a lot about this group that we don't want to talk about that forever," conceded Dallas.
"We want to go again. We narrowly missed out on the World Cup and we've given ourselves a tremendous chance now to go and achieve something special.
"Four wins out of four is brilliant but we'll enjoy it, regroup and go again in September."