Stuart Dallas glowing in his praise of Northern Ireland colleague Paddy McNair
AS a Northern Ireland legend left the international stage it was clear that ‘Departures’ will be through a revolving door rather than a trap-door.
Aaron Hughes announced his retirement from football after another late, late show victory for Northern Ireland – with Stuart Dallas joking that the reason was Paddy McNair’s first international goal.
“I’m delighted for Paddy,” Dallas declared:
“Hughesy said after he wasn’t retiring until Paddy scored, so he can go out on a high now!”
While tributes were quite rightly being paid to Dallas’s fellow east Tyrone man Hughes, the versatile Leeds United player also praised the performances of goalscorer McNair:
“Paddy has been excellent. He’s had a tough season at Middlesbrough. He should be playing more regularly in my eyes but he’s proved what a really good player he is.
“He works hard, he’s fit and his running ability and how powerful he is are something else. You’d think the 90th minute was the first minute and it’s a credit to him.”
That stamina is reflected throughout the squad as Michael O’Neill’s men once again scored late on to secure victory, as they had done at home to Belarus and in Estonia on Saturday evening.
“It’s unbelievable. It speaks volumes about the team and how far we’ve come and our never-say-die attitude,” said Dallas.
“We’ve come out here to get six points in these two game and we’ve done that.
“Especially at this stage of the season it is difficult with us being out of season. The shape we’ve kept ourselves in, the fitness levels and the preparation Michael and the staff have put in in Manchester at two training camps, another in Austria, and then the two games, it’s been a long couple of weeks – but it’s all worthwhile.
“It doesn’t matter who you are up against, these were two tough places to come, two games away from home in June. It’s difficult, especially in that heat but we’re just delighted we’re going home with two wins and we can enjoy what’s left of the summer holidays.”
The influx of young players into the squad has been a positive factor too, acknowledged the 28-year-old Dallas (inset):
“With all the young players coming in, they are making me feel old now. We have legs in the team, we have speed and there’s experience; it’s a great mixture.
“Jamal [Lewis] has come in and he’s outstanding. Gavin [Whyte] and Jordan [Jones] can come in and these are the players who are going to take us forward.
“With Aaron, Gareth [McAuley], Jonny [Evans], and Craig [Cathcart] there is real experience in there and the mixture is full credit to Michael.”
The hope is that that classic blend of youth and experience will take Northern Ireland to another major tournament after reaching Euro 2016:
“People maybe thought we’d just settle with that but it says a lot about this group of players that we don’t want to just sit and talk about that forever. We want to go again.
“We narrowly missed out on the World Cup and we’ve given ourselves a tremendous chance now to go and achieve something special – but we won’t get carried away.
“Four wins out of four is brilliant but we’ll enjoy it, re-group, and go again in September.”
That month brings Germany, who have won their first three qualifiers, including victory in the Netherlands, 2-0 in Belarus, and then thrashing Estonia 8-0.
Dallas accepts that the visit of the Germans to Belfast is “massive”, but for now they’ll relish winning the first four qualifiers matches for the first time ever:
“It’s never been done before but we’ll not be getting carried away. We’ll enjoy the moment.
“At the start of the campaign we set out to get the four wins with the way the games fell for us – it was four must-win games, without being disrespectful to the opposition, and it shows how far we’ve come that we come into these games expecting to win.
“It sets it up well now going into September. We have the friendly first [against Luxembourg] then it’s Germany at home, which is massive…“It’s set us up well. We can only beat who are in front of us.”