Smith feels Northern Ireland have proved mettle even in defeats
FINE margins have gone against Northern Ireland in recent games but Michael Smith remains hopeful that the squad will get some reward for their "professional" approach against Romania tonight.
The width of a post denied a dramatic late winner in normal time in the play-off final against Slovakia, then an obviously offside goal turned the game away to Austria, both matches ending in 2-1 defeats.
Hearts defender Smith was pressed into a midfield role for a side that was much-changed in Vienna for various reasons, along with newcomer Ali McCann.
With skipper Steven Davis, George Saville, and Corry Evans all missing for various reasons, Smith might start again tonight. Remarkably none of the various withdrawals has been due to coronavirus, which the 32-year-old feels is to be applauded:
"We know what we are getting when we come away, we aren't allowed to leave the hotel, blah, blah, blah - but all the staff look after us really well and we have done really well, unlike other squads, not to get any positive cases. That shows how strong the group is and how professional we are."
Smith admits the various setbacks have been hard to take: "We have had to deal with loads, especially after Thursday night [against Slovakia].
"As a group we gave so much to the highs and lows of the game on Thursday. The late equaliser, then Laffs hit the post, we were six inches away from the Euros.
"To go on and lose the game and be so deflated in the changing room afterwards we had to pick ourselves up and we did that in Austria, we gave it a right go but it wasn't the win we were looking for, but it's a great bunch to be involved in.
"I felt we played well against Austria but decisions like that [offside equaliser] can really kill you off. To go 1-0 up and be playing so well and frustrate them, then decisions like that go against you and you end up losing the game is a kick in the teeth.
"But there were a lot of positives in the game, I felt Ali was very good and the back three. It gives the manager some food for thought for the Romania game."
Usually a right-back, Smith said that NI assistant Austin McPhee knew from his time at Tynecastle about Smith's versatility: "I've played there a few times for my club…Having Paddy [McNair] there beside me was great because he's a fantastic player.
"The gaffer said he would try me there and I thought I coped with it really well. I'll play anywhere and I'm immensely proud every time I pull on the shirt."
Another option for game-time in midfield is Manchester United youngster, Ethan Galbraith, with manager Ian Baraclough expected to at least bring him off the bench, saying:
"I think everybody's interested to see how Ethan gets on. Bringing him into the squad, he was there on merit. I wanted him to experience it from the start rather than coming into a camp late on to be a late sub or fill in the numbers.
"Having him for 10, 11 days, he's gaining massive experience of being around these lads, training day in, day out, being part of the group. The last six months have told me that he's grown up as an individual, grown as a player.
"Man United are really happy with his development, he's signed a new deal. I think it's my job to bring young players through, give them an opportunity, and see how they get on.
"Ethan is one of those, along with Ali McCann, Dan Ballard - we've seen that, given the chance, they are capable, but they have to go and step up. Hopefully one or two of them might come on in the next two or three years. There has to be that transition throughout and that is constantly happening."
However, Baraclough was adamant that "this is certainly not the end of an era, which is the phrase which has been bandied around.
"The only people who mention stuff like that are the media people.
"All the conversations I've had with everyone in the group have been positive. We spoke after the Slovakia game about re-setting our sights and drawing a line under the Euros, it's gone and we can't do anything about that - but we can affect the next qualification.
"The draw comes around in three weeks' time, the World Cup starts in March and it will be over in nine months, it's the quickest, shortest qualification period that there has ever been.
"This time next year we could be celebrating being in a World Cup. For the next year the lads are fully refocused, there's a hunger and desire there. They have been in two play-offs for major competitions and we fell at the final hurdle but there is still a hunger among the lads.
"The lads showed character in abundance in the Austria game and the senior lads are at the front, driving it on. I don't see anything that tells me that Steven Davis is not ready to play any more."