Northern Ireland sub Paul Smyth sinks Korea with late winner
International friendly: Northern Ireland 2-1 Korea Republic
HAVING tried in vain to slip away after only one TV interview, the only question match-winner Paul Smyth actually dodged was about whether he'd be out 'on the town' on Saturday night.
The former Linfield favourite has been in the spotlight recently, linked with a switch to the Republic of Ireland, but he did not duck that issue.
After celebrating his goal with his trademark somersault in front of the Kop, the 20-year-old insisted that changing allegiance had never been on his mind: "Yeah, I was brought up with the youth and I thought, 'If I get my chance with the Northern Ireland first team, I'll take it'. I'm happy enough, I got my chance there."
He certainly did – and he took it brilliantly.
Latching onto a headed flick-on from fellow sub – and QPR club-mate – Conor Washington, Smyth cleverly shifted the ball right then drilled a low shot into the bottom corner inside the near post just over three minutes after coming on.
That 86th minute strike, added to a 20th minute own goal from Korean defender Kim Min-Jae, gave the hosts a somewhat fortuitous victory after Kwon Chang-Hoon had fired the visitors into an early lead.
The only home player who hinted at unhappiness with the win was the player Smyth replaced, Jordan Jones, and he was joking when he said: "I've just given him a slap in the changing room as I'm probably going to be on the bench next game! He was fantastic and all credit to him, he deserves it."
Jones was one of three full debutants, along with goalkeeper Trevor Carson and left-back Jamal Lewis, and the Kilmarnock attacker was delighted with how the day went:
"It was a very enjoyable afternoon and the boys showed great character to come back from 1-0 down. I think the future is looking bright and positive.
"We only really had five days with what was a new squad. Although there was experience, we had a few new faces."
Lewis was caught out of position as Park chipped a pass into the path of Kwon for the seventh minute opener, but he did well after that, even when Spurs star Son Heung-Min swapped over to his side.
The home team wasn't just unfamiliar in terms of personnel, wearing its new icy blue 'away' shirt, but after that shaky start they scored a well-worked leveller.
The impressive George Saville was fouled for a free kick and was a decoy runner before Ollie Norwood, shaping to shoot, instead rolled it forward for Jamie Ward. The feisty forward ran on and flashed the ball fiercely into the six-yard box, where centre-back Kim could only turn it into his own net.
NI threatened a few times from set plays but the visitors were the better side for much of the match, their neat footwork and quick movement creating a series of shooting chances, most of which were blocked or deflected out for corners.
Goalkeeper Carson, making a senior start at last at the age of 30, saved smartly from Son minutes soon after the opening goal, and made some more good stops in a satisfying performance:
"I knew from Monday I was playing, but I also knew I still had a job to do," he said. "I could easily have gone out there and had a beast and never played again for Northern Ireland…
"They're so sharp that actually helped as well, because you always had to be on your toes and concentrate."
Certainly Korea carved out more openings, especially in the second half, but were denied by reaction saves and also blocks by stand-in skipper Jonny Evans and substitute Conor McLaughlin.
The hosts' best effort after the break came very early with a curler from Josh Magennis that was tipped over – before Smyth hit the net and the headlines.
He certainly didn't want to be in the spotlight off the pitch, saying about the talk of interest from Martin O'Neill:
"I didn't listen to it – that puts a lot of pressure on you… I just try to avoid all that, as much as I can, and keep my focus on where I am at the minute."
Despite having switched from his native west Belfast to west London, Smyth remains down-to-earth, even underground, in his method of getting to and from matches – the Tube:
"It's the easiest travel to get there," he said with a smile. "An Oyster card gets me to the games. I live near Heathrow, close to the training ground…I'll never get 'big-time', I'll always get the Tube."
His impact on Saturday was all the more remarkable given that he played 90 minutes on Thursday night in an U21 qualifier against Spain, and add in that he's asthmatic, although he played down that factor:
"You take two puffs of the inhaler before the game and that does you for the whole 90. I know I only got 10, I thought I was going to get more, but I'm happy enough getting as much game-time for the first team as I can."
Even in his short time back on the Windsor Park turn he took the breath away on Saturday afternoon. He and the other young players on show can look forward to many more minutes in green – or icy blue.
Northern Ireland: Carson; Hughes (C McLaughlin, 18, inj.), McAuley, J Evans (capt.) (Cathcart, 67), Lewis; Jones (Smyth, 82), Norwood (McNair, 71), Saville, C Evans (Boyce, 62); Ward (Washington, 62), Magennis.
Korea Republic: Kim Seung-Gyu; Lee Yong, Jang, Kim Min-Jae, Kim Jin-Su (Kim Min-Woo, 35); Park (Lee Chang-Min, 67), Ki Sung-Yeung (capt.) (Jung, 67), Lee Jae-Sung; Kwon (Hwang, 62), Kim Shin-wook, Son Heung-Min (Yeom, 75).
Referee: Bobby Madden (Scotland).
Northern Ireland's newer faces:
Trevor Carson: Finally made his senior debut and made a fine impression. Left exposed for the Korean goal but made some smart saves – including from several deflected shots – and was alert and confident throughout.
Jamal Lewis: The young left-back was caught out by the pass for their goal and caught under several longer passes, but didn't let any errors faze him and still did well. Composed in possession, coped well with Spurs forward Son Heung-Min, and good going forward.
George Saville: Somewhat fortunate to receive the official 'man of the match' award but again showed he can be a midfield regular. Worked hard in an advanced role, including winning the free kick for the equaliser, and almost connected with a flick-on in front of goal. Dropped deeper later on and generally used the ball well.
Jordan Jones: Had one early run but then struggled to get into the game, however he did work up and down the left flank. Showed a desire to get on the ball and take on the opposition whenever he did receive possession.
Paul Smyth: Back on familiar territory, the ex-Linfield star took hardly any time to settle on the international stage, and didn't relax even after taking his goal so well, looking lively throughout his cameo appearance.