Northern Ireland beat Estonia and go marching on to Belarus
Euro 2020 qualifying Group C: Estonia 1-2 Northern Ireland
WHO scored? Who cares? That summed up the mood in the Northern Ireland camp after their super-subs sank Estonia on Saturday evening with a turnaround quicker than a speedboat.
Josh Magennis definitely scored the 80th minute winner, turning in a low cross from the excellent Jordan Jones, and arguably the big Bangor man also grabbed the equaliser three minutes earlier, getting a touch to a goal-bound shot from the first sub, Conor Washington.
No one connected with the visitors really minded about the name(s) on the score-sheet, with manager Michael O'Neill declaring: “I'm proud to be associated with them. They're not selfish, the modern-day player is typically quite selfish but this group of players aren't.”
Indeed, typically for him, Magennis talked about ‘the team' scoring – although he did say he'd got a touch: “Conor cut inside and I was just trying to open the goal as much as I can for him. If it didn't hit me it was going to go in anyway but it got a nick.
“I looked at the linesman, ‘Is he going to flag?' because I was worried I was off. We're both strikers so we're both going to claim it regardless of what they say in the studio.”
Strikers being strikers, good-natured, er, joshing over who scored that vital equaliser was understandable, especially as Washington in particular is seeking a summer transfer after being released by Sheffield United.
“To any manager listening out there, I'm a free transfer!”, the 27-year-old said in a TV interview. “It was nice to get back playing and hopefully I've changed my destiny.”
He certainly altered the course of this match, after coming on as a half-time replacement for Liam Boyce, who had been as ineffective as most of his colleagues in a sloppy first period.
The men in white fell behind to a fine 25th minute free-kick from Estonia captain Konstantin Vassiljev, his shot bent low past the wall, and were fortunate not to be trailing further by the interval.
A second home ‘goal' in the 39th minute, headed in from a corner by giant centre half Madis Vihmann, was ruled out after goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell collided with centre-forward Rauno Sappinen.
Local hero Vassiljev, of Flora Tallinn, was blooming brilliant, a constant thorn in the side of the visitors, but perhaps should have scored again just before half-time, only to drag his effort wide.
The 34-year-old then crashed a rising right-foot drive against the crossbar in the 53rd minute – but from then on NI took charge.
Boss O'Neill bravely sent on those three attackers, starting with Washington, and including replacing right-back Michael Smith with left-winger Jones in a re-shuffled formation – and reaped the rewards for his positivity.
“We ended up with probably too many attacking players on the pitch,” he admitted, “but we needed to do that to get back into the game.
“I didn't feel at 1-1 that we should settle, we had to try and win the game. The subs were made with the intention of not just getting back into the game, with the intention of winning it.”
In truth the two Northern Ireland goals seemed to come in a flash after a frustrating period of superiority without scoring.
First Washington told Jamal Lewis where he wanted him to pass into the inside-left channel and the excellent young left-back duly obliged. The stocky striker cut purposefully inside, shot right-footed, and the ball deflected in off Magennis, perhaps with a suspicion of offside.
The celebrations of the raucous ‘Green and White Army' had barely subsided when they doubled in intensity as this time Magennis definitely netted, helping on a terrific centre from Jones.
With a 4-2-4 formation now including the versatile Stuart Dallas at right-back, the visitors still had to see out 13 minutes of play.
Peacock-Farrell denied Estonia an almost instant equaliser, turning away a fierce shot from Sergei Zenjov.
It was literally sweaty for NI, the temperature of 28 degrees at kick-off, 26 at half-time, and still 24 at the end, and humid too – but there to be no tears for the visitors.
Estonia almost grabbed a point in the third minute of added time but Artjom Dmitrijev somehow headed wide from a pin-point cross by sub Gert Kams, with the NI keeper and defenders helpless spectators.
That left around 1,200 NI fans as joyous observers, singing about winning the group. That remains unlikely, with Germany and the Netherlands still to be faced twice each, but Northern Ireland will definitely stay top if they avoid defeat in Borisov against Belarus tomorrow night.
Magennis, whose own future is uncertain due to the financial troubles at Bolton Wanderers, insisted another win is the target, though, adding: “It will be draining but you're playing for your country so you've just got to find a way through.”
Washington agreed with the assessment that he and his colleagues would travel to Belarus exhausted but confident: ““Yeah, big time. The last thing we wanted to do was come out of that game having lost 1-0, we'd have been absolutely devastated. Fair play to Josh, it was an absolutely great finish for the second goal, and now we go marching on to Belarus.”
Estonia (4-2-3-1): Lepmets; Teniste (Kams, 84), Vihmann, Mets, Pikk; Dmitrijev, Kait (Tamm, 84); Zenjov, Vassiljev (capt.), Sinyavskiy; Sappinen (Sorga, 61).
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell; Smith (Jones, 63), Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; McNair, Davis (capt.), Saville (Magennis, 69); Whyte, Boyce (Washington, h-t), Dallas.
Referee: Fabio Verissimo (Portugal).