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Players pay tribute to O'Neill

Northern Ireland's match-winners dedicated the defeat of Russia to long-suffering manager Michael O'Neill.

The 1-0 victory over Fabio Capello's side at Windsor Park marked O'Neill's first success on the international stage - ending a 20-month wait that had previously yielded five draws and four defeats.

During those tough times the players spoke frequently and passionately of their support for O'Neill, who has worked diligently behind the scenes since replacing Nigel Worthington at the helm.

And he finally got his moment in the sun when Martin Paterson rose to nod home Niall McGinn's fine one-touch cross to establish a first-half lead Russia were unable to respond to.

McGinn, who was the goalscorer and star of the show in the previous high point of the O'Neill era - a 1-1 draw in Portugal - was delighted to finally give the former Shamrock Rovers coach three points to celebrate.

"That was for the boss," said the Aberdeen forward.

"We had massive belief going into the match, although few people gave us any hope.

"The boss has waited a long time for a victory so that was for him. It was an unbelievable night, played in an electric atmosphere. There is a great togetherness in the squad, demonstrated with our reaction afterwards.

"We got together in a huddle just to congratulate each other."

Huddersfield striker Paterson, who put in a wonderful shift leading the line and was rewarded with his first competitive international goal, echoed those sentiments.

"The win was much needed for Michael," he said.

"With the performances and the way we've played he deserves that victory, and I think he deserves it for the way he has stuck by how he wants us to play.

"I think the group is only going to get better too."

Beating a Russia side ranked 16th in the world by FIFA, 93 places above Northern Ireland, was an even tougher task without senior players such as Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt, Kyle Lafferty and Chris Baird - absent for a variety of fitness and suspension issues.

But having watched stand-ins such as Paterson, Jamie Ward, Craig Cathcart and Oliver Norwood excel, O'Neill warned that the established pecking order could be due a shake-up.

Any of the four would be unlucky to be dropped for the home clash against Portugal next month, leaving him with the kind of selection dilemma managers crave.

"I've been in the game long enough to not get carried away and say it is a new day but I know what we have in this squad," he said.

"In the past period I don't think we've had enough pressure put on those (experienced) players in terms of staying in the team and keeping the jersey.

"The onus now is on these players, instead of people thinking they have the right to play you need to be picking from a healthier base.

"Hopefully you're seeing the the shape of a team that can continue to develop.

"Nights like this are invaluable in terms of giving the the players the belief they can play at the top level.

"They can compete and show quality and they showed that really well in possession and defended exceptionally well."

Northern Ireland have no realistic prospect of qualifying from Group F, but the forthcoming double header against Portugal and Luxembourg offers a chance to build on the best result of their recent history.


From Belfast Telegraph