Belfast Telegraph

Stuart Dallas is savouring a proud moment but wants more glory days

By Graham Luney

Stuart Dallas left Crewe Alexandra's Gresty Road with a spring in his step and with good reason.

The man from Coagh had just slotted in his first goal for Northern Ireland.

It wasn't a spectacular finish but it was certainly a special one.

Northern Ireland's friendly with Qatar was always going to be remembered as a surreal day out for everyone but former Crusaders ace Dallas now has his own special reason to recall the Sunday evening battle with great affection.

When the 24-year-old rifled the ball home from close range after Will Grigg had flicked on Nial McGinn's cross just after half-time, he became the first Brentford player to score for Northern Ireland since 1952.

Qatar equalised later on with a goal from Karim Boudiaf but this was Dallas' day.

Seamus D'Arcy was the last Brentford player to net for Northern Ireland - against Scotland - while it was an impressive performance in the 1-0 friendly defeat to the Scots in March which catapulted Dallas firmly back into Michael O'Neill's thoughts.

The winger showed glimpses of his attacking flair in the memorable 2-1 victory over Finland which fuelled dreams of reaching the Euro 2016 finals next summer.

And, along with Manchester United ace Paddy McNair and Fleetwood's Conor McLaughlin, he was one of Northern Ireland's most effective performers against the World Cup 2022 World Cup hosts.

Northern Ireland save their heroic performances for the big occasion and Dallas' finish was a first friendly goal since 2012, but it will still live long in the player's memory.

"It's obviously a huge honour to score your first goal for Northern Ireland and it's a special moment for me," said Dallas.

"It's an honour to play for Northern Ireland and scoring makes the experience extra special.

"I thought a draw was a fair result and it was a worthwhile exercise for us as we build towards the big game against Romania this month."

Dallas can expect to play some part in that crunch Group F encounter at Windsor Park on June 13 after producing a dazzling display at Gresty Road in front of 3,022 spectators.

Northern Ireland last won a non-competitive match against Georgia in 2008 and Michael O'Neill is now without success in 10 attempts, but the performances of Dallas and McNair will have plesed the former Shamrock Rovers chief.

Before the Romania showdown, O'Neill's side will take on Republic of Ireland in a behind closed doors battle at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday.

That match may lack a competitive edge, but it will allow Northern Ireland players, who have struggled to get game time at clubs, to build up their match fitness.

O'Neill has stressed the importance of players being finely tuned for big assignments ahead as it would be a cruel twist of fate if a golden opportunity to qualify for a first major tournament in 30 years was allowed to fade.

"Some players haven't played for the best part of a month and it was important to get them on the pitch," said O'Neill.

"The players have a responsibility to maintain their fitness and I have to gauge that in training and now in the match in Dublin.

"The training should be pretty intensive and team selection will be based around who is game ready and ready to perform for us."

Belfast Telegraph


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