Michael O’Neill is watching Northern Ireland’s young guns grow up before his eyes in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
The manager has a glint in his eyes when he talks about the energy the likes of Jamal Lewis, Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Gavin Whyte have brought to his team.
But players who cut their teeth in the dismal Nations League campaign last year are now delivering results as O’Neill’s men go in search of a fourth-straight qualifying win in Tuesday’s match against Belarus in Borisov.
OâNeill on the character of the players: âThat has been one of the most pleasing aspect of the campaign - particularly for the younger players. The most encouraging thing was that when we got level on Saturday we were determined to go and win it.â #GAWA pic.twitter.com/RliCeygc0N— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) June 10, 2019
When Northern Ireland fell behind to a 25th-minute free-kick from Konstantin Vassiljev against Estonia on Saturday, the feeling was similar to that felt last year as they lost all four of their Nations League matches.
But this time they dug deep and late goals from Conor Washington and Josh Magennis earned a vital 2-1 win.
“That’s been one of the most pleasing aspects of the campaign, particularly from the younger players coming in – I thought they were very important in Estonia in the second half,” O’Neill said.
“It was a difficult situation for them, a lot of them are new to international football, and for so long we’ve relied on Jonny (Evans), Steven (Davis), and Craig (Cathcart), older players, but the younger players have a freshness about them.
“We lost our games in the Nations League, a little bit unfairly in many cases, and they’ve learnt from that experience as well.
“The most encouraging thing was that when we got level on Saturday, that we were determined to go and win, we weren’t going to settle for anything other than the three points.”
Substitutions changed the game for Northern Ireland, with goalscorers Washington and Magennis both coming off the bench while Jordan Jones also made an impact on the wing, setting up Maggenis’ winner.
Magennis also got a late winner against Belarus in March after coming on as a substitute, and O’Neill is grateful for the options he now has in his squad.
“The substitutions made a big difference in terms of what they brought to the team, both in terms of quality and physically as well,” he said.
“It’s nice to have that, that you can bring on a sub and they do make a difference. That shows the strength in depth we maybe have now.”
Saturday’s match was played in hot and humid conditions, draining on the legs. Northern Ireland have arrived in Belarus to find similar hot weather here too but – with Tuesday’s match not kicking off until 9.45pm – things should have cooled off considerably.
There are other challenges, however. Due to a lack of suitable accommodation, Northern Ireland are staying in the capital Minsk and making the 75-minute journey to Borisov by bus prior to kick-off.
“The added slight complication is the journey from Minsk to Borisov which is longer than you’d typically do on a matchday,” O’Neill said.
“Certainly the later kick-off in terms of the weather will be something the players will be pleased about.
“I think even playing at 7pm in Estonia, it was still very hot and humid and hopefully with a 9.45pm kick-off, the conditions will be somewhat more favourable to us.”