Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: McNair's finest hour as Northern Ireland dream stays alive

 

Done it: goal hero Paddy McNair celebrates at the end
Done it: goal hero Paddy McNair celebrates at the end

By Steven Beacom

History makers and heroes. That's what Michael O'Neill's team are. Hope. That's what they give the Green and White Army.

This is an era to savour for Northern Ireland followers.

On Saturday, supersubs Conor Washington, Josh Magennis and Jordan Jones stepped up with style to win the Euro 2020 qualifier in Estonia, and last night Paddy McNair provided the perfect finish to overcome Belarus.

That's one of the many impressive aspects of O'Neill's braves. Northern Ireland now have match winners all over the park.

Another point to note is the never-say-die attitude flowing throughout the squad. They left it late in Tallinn and it was the same again this time, with McNair striking home the only goal of the Group C clash with just a few minutes to go.

Never underestimate what O'Neill has achieved in his time as manager. Football wise the nation was on its knees when he was appointed three days after Christmas Day in 2011. He's been handing out gifts to the people virtually ever since.

The biggest one of all would come if he could guide his side to the Euro 2020 finals by finishing in the top two in Group C.

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Reaching Euro 2016 was as awesome as it was emotional given that Northern Ireland hadn't played in a major tournament for three decades. To qualify from a group containing the might of Germany and the Netherlands would be an even greater feat.

What O'Neill and his players have done is offer themselves a chance when most felt there was none when the draw was made.

At the start of the campaign in March, the 2020 vision was to triumph home and away against Estonia and Belarus in the opening half of the campaign, setting up four cup finals versus the Dutch and the Germans later in the year.

In collecting 12 points out of 12, history was made because before this Northern Ireland had never won their opening four qualifiers. Part One of the dream has been delivered. Now we can relish Part Two.

Thanks to McNair for that. He laughs when you talk to him about his Northern Ireland song because the fans compare him to one of the finest footballers ever to lace up a pair of boots, Zinedine Zidane.

Paddy appreciates he's no ZZ, but the Real Madrid manager would have been proud to net McNair's winner in the Borisov Arena. Linking up with dangerous winger Jones, the farmer's boy from Ballyclare showed drive, determination and skill to power himself past defenders into a shooting position inside the box and then poise to smash the ball into the net just when his country needed it.

It was a magical way for McNair to climax his finest game at international level. The former Manchester United man was Northern Ireland's all action hero aided by strong performances from the excellent Jones and Washington in attack and Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart in defence. Bailey Peacock-Farrell merits credit too for a confident display and a clean sheet.

Now attention can turn to Germany and the Netherlands.

First up will be Manuel Neuer, Leroy Sane, Marco Reus, Toni Kroos and the Germans, who hammered Estonia 8-0 last night, at Windsor Park on September 9.

That will be followed by a trip to Rotterdam on October 10 to face the Netherlands and the best defender in the world Virgil van Dijk, Barcelona's new sensation Frenkie de Jong and Ajax's sought after kid Matthijs de Ligt.

In November comes one of the most testing double headers in football at home to the Dutch and away to Germany. Daunting but oh so exciting.

O'Neill has already proved that he can lead NI to the promised land. His players will enter the next four qualifiers as underdogs but, rest assured, he will fancy the challenge and make them believe. When the time comes another hero in green may emerge, just like McNair in Belarus.

The nation has a team that fights for its folk and will give every last inch to make dreams come true. Be proud of this manager and this side. These truly are glorious times for Northern Ireland football.

Belfast Telegraph

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