Belfast Telegraph

Paddy's perfect timing seals NI record

Belarus 0 N Ireland 1

Paddy power: Midfielder Paddy McNair fires home the late winner in Borisov to keep Northern Ireland’s perfect start to Group C intact
Paddy power: Midfielder Paddy McNair fires home the late winner in Borisov to keep Northern Ireland’s perfect start to Group C intact

By Paul Ferguson

What a time to score your first Northern Ireland goal.

With his mum Claire and dad Alan having travelled out to Borisov to watch him, his team-mates dead on their feet and just four minutes left on the clock, Paddy McNair turned his man, sped into the box and, with a swipe of the right boot, gave Northern Ireland yet another late and dramatic victory in this Euro qualifying campaign.

The dream of reaching a second successive Euro finals is still alive.

Michael O'Neill's boys have hit their target - the maximum of 12 points with four wins from four, the first time in Irish FA history at the start of a campaign, and they proudly top Group C, three points ahead of Germany.

Now Northern Ireland can look forward to the four glamour ties against European superpowers Germany and the Netherlands in the autumn with incredible hope and desire - something to defend.

Last night in a hot and humid Borisov was by far the toughest obstacle to overcome to date.

Belarus were physical, the conditions were draining and the match finished after 11.30pm local time.

Boss O'Neill made four changes from the starting XI against Estonia in Tallinn last Saturday.

All three substitutes who made an impact at the A Le Coq Arena were given the chance to shine at a roasting hot Borisov Arena. Keeping with a 4-3-3 formation, Jordan Jones, Conor Washingston and Josh Magennis came in as the front three for Stuart Dallas, Liam Boyce and Gavin Whyte. Corry Evans replaced Middlesbrough midfielder George Saville.

Belarus manager Igor Kriushenko also made changes from last Saturday's 2-0 defeat to Germany, most notably bringing in their goalscorer from Windsor Park Igor Stasevich.

The Borisov Arena was only half full and so the 660 members of the Green and White Army were easy to hear throughout.

Northern Ireland started with great urgency, Washington in particular making his presence felt, and on four minutes the unemployed striker went within a whisker of scoring his second goal in as many games, just striking his shot from 20 yards inches past the post.

Washington and Jones were linking up well, using their pace allied by the exciting Jamal Lewis on the left flank.

McNair, with his impressive workrate in midfield, was using his physical strength to win free kicks and attempt to link up with his attackers.

There was a real hunger and desire being displayed by Washington but, just like during the first half in Tallinn, a clear cut chance could not be carved out.

All of Belarus' attacks were going through local boy Stasevich, who was being given far too much room in his own backyard.

Michael Smith and Magennis were caught napping when Stasevich played Dzyanis Polyakov in on the overlap and Northern Ireland needed a strong defensive clearance.

Then, moments later, Polyakov nearly caught out keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell with a cross-cum-shot but it drifted wide.

Jones was trying to show why Rangers decided to buy him, beating his man with a wonderful turn of pace, but sadly for Northern Ireland they couldn't capitalise from his crosses.

Nikita Korzun, after repeated late tackles, was booked for a foul on Magennis before both teams enjoyed a period of long possession, with the local crowd whistling their disapproval when the men in green had the ball.

Stasevich drifted right to set up an opportunity for Belarus which would see Peacock-Farrell tested.

He gave Jones a taste of his own medicine when he turned the new Ibrox ace inside out but his cross was easily dealt with.

Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart were once again showing their Premier League class, so assured as centre halves, while Michael Smith was steady and Lewis was oozed pure talent.

The Austrian referee Harald Lechner, with neither side having a shot on target, brought a sudden end to the first half right on 45 minutes - the players only too glad to get into their air conditioned dressing rooms for the much needed fluids.

Belarus made the first change of the night when Sergei Kislyak replaced Korzun at the start of the second half but it was Northern Ireland who finally had a shot on target.

First, Jones whipped over a cross that stung the hands of Alexksandr Gutor, however neither Magennis or McNair could repel the rebound goalwards.

However, with the attack still alive, the ball soon fell to Washington and he turned and shot from 20 yards towards the top corner, but Gutor was equal to it.

Stuart Dallas replaced Magennis on 56 minutes and Lewis picked up a yellow card for a block on Shitov seconds later.

Belarus brought on their 6ft 4in striker Denis Laptev, scorer of seven goals in 11 games for Dinamo Brest this season, to try and add a new dimension to their attacking game.

Sub Kislyak finally had Belarus' first shot on goal after 64 minutes but the strike from 24 yards lacked the velocity to trouble Peacock-Farrell.

Following a foul by Jonny Evans on Shitov that earned the Leicester City man a booking, and after George Saville had replaced Corry Evans, Belarus played a clever free kick to Staesevich that brought out a great low save from Peacock-Farrell.

O'Neill soon beckoned Kyle Lafferty from the bench to replace Washington.

In a frenetic short spell for Northern Ireland they bombarded Belarus box, but to no avail, with Jones, Saville and Smith left disappointed.

O'Neill's players, with 12 minutes to go, were absolutely exhausted, but they never gave up, surging forward, and with eight minutes to go, from a McNair free kick, Smith blasted an effort just over the bar.

Lafferty picked up a caution for high feet and it appeared Northern Ireland's night would be one of frustration.

But step up Ballynure's finest in the 86th minute. McNair received the ball from a Lewis throw-in, played it to Jones who quickly gave it back to the 24-year-old. The Middlesbrough man used his speed to race into the box, turned Kislyak with a nutmeg and then, with the keeping protecting his near post, McNair fired it low and hard into the opposite corner.

Cue mass celebrations on the pitch and in the Green and White Army section of the Borisov Arena.

The Northern Ireland players have created history and they can now go and enjoy their summer holidays safe in the knowledge they will be battling for Euro qualification in the autumn.

BELARUS: Gutor, Shitov (Veretilo 71), Naumov, Martynovich, Palyakow, Nekhaychik, Korzun (Kislyak 45), Maewski, Stasevich, Kovalev, Shikavka (Laptev 58).

Subs not used: Klimovich, Dragun, Volkov, Gromyko, Gordeichuk, Skavysh, Valadzko, Pyachenin, Pavlyuchenko.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Peacock-Farrell, Smith, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis, Magennis (Dallas, 56), McNair, Davis, C Evans (Saville 70), Jones, Washington (Lafferty 71).

Subs not used: McGovern, McLaughlin, McAuley, Sykes, Boyce, Ferguson, Flanagan, Thompson, Hazard.

Referee: Harald Lechner (Austria)

Man of the match: Paddy McNair

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