Belfast Telegraph

Magennis is savouring his leading role on the big stage

By Paul Ferguson in Baku

This time last year, on the eve of Northern Ireland's historic opening Euro 2016 finals group game against Poland in Nice, Josh Magennis sat in the team's official hotel on the famous Promenade des Anglais content with his role within the squad as back-up striker.

The then Kilmarnock hitman allowed his mind to wander, seeing himself starting in his country's biggest match on a major stage for 30 years.

But reality would soon bite and he would accept his place was behind Kyle Lafferty and Conor Washington in the pecking order.

Magennis was there at the tournament to produce cameo performances with his finest hour coming when, as a late second-half substitute, it was his run and cross which ultimately led to Niall McGinn's goal which helped seal Northern Ireland's stunning 2-0 victory over Ukraine in Lyon.

Manager Michael O'Neill, a great admirer of his attitude, work ethic and desire, promised his dedication would soon be rewarded at both club and international level.

O'Neill helped him secure a move to League One Charlton, and during this World Cup qualifying campaign he was selected to start in the games against San Marino, Germany and Azerbaijan. Only an injury prevented him from playing a part against Norway in March.

Now Magennis is suddenly regarded as a senior player and tomorrow night in humid Baku - with Washington, Jamie Ward and Will Grigg unavailable - the 26-year-old Bangor man will lead Northern Ireland's attack, alongside Liam Boyce, in a crunch World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan.

"The last year has been fantastic for me," admitted Magennis. "I moved clubs but internationally things have changed for me too. I used to be called into the squad when there were injuries, but then I managed to get into the official squad for France and now since the Euros I've been playing throughout the campaign and that really is fantastic for me.

"Once you see how big a major tournament is it really whets your appetite to get back and enjoy more of them.

"Every player wanted to play against Poland, Germany, Ukraine and then Wales. Playing for Northern Ireland you know that in every game you must give everything because the next time a major tournament comes around you don't want to be on the bench.

"What Michael has done for my career - both internationally and club-wise - has been great. He has given me confidence and pushed me on to levels I needed to be at. The biggest thing a manager can offer is trust in a player and the only way to repay that is by giving everything you have.

"With Michael as manager you can't rest on your laurels and think you have made it because you will soon get a rocket up your backside."

Magennis, during the 4-0 victory over Azerbaijan last November at Windsor Park, may not have scored but he was a real thorn in the side of Robert Prosinecki's team.

Azerbaijan were smarting after that defeat, especially because they were joint second with Northern Ireland going into the match and hadn't conceded up to that point.

In the lead up to this game, Magennis insists Northern Ireland have shown Azerbaijan great respect by going away for a six-day training camp in Turkey and, while he expects the men in green to win, he doesn't anticipate it to be by such a large margin.

Magennis, who has one international goal, stated: "We always knew before the November game that technically they were very good and could move the ball quickly. But we knew if we were able to be strong in terms of physicality then we could overpower them.

"We fully respect them and we're not going to Baku thinking, 'We beat them 4-0 at Windsor, it's a walk in the park'. That's not going to happen.

"If we thought that we would have flown in on Friday night for the game. We need to take every opponent seriously and that's just the way we've been.

"We're not underestimating anyone - we know they are a very good team. When they came to us they were unbeaten in the group and hadn't conceded. That just shows you the quality they have. We know that if our players can play to their full potential, which we've done so often, then we are a very good team and hopefully we can go on and get the win."

During team meetings in Antalya there have been messages about conserving energy due to the temperatures being in the high 20s around kick-off. However, Magennis concedes dropping down the gears would seriously impact his performance and he doesn't plan to change his swashbuckling style.

He added: "We've been told about how we should handle the heat. Michael has made it very clear that it is not going to be an 11 v 11 game - it's more than likely going to be 14 players used. Conditions are going to be tough but I'm not going to change the style of my game.

"The way I play has got me where I am, so on Saturday it will be a case of go as hard as you can for as long as you can. I'll do that instead of trying to coast through, because if you do try and coast, for me, it doesn't work. So I'll just try and hit the ground running and if my number comes up then it does and if it doesn't then you have to keep giving your all."

His all-action style has certainly taken him a long way in the last year - from back-up to leading man.

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