Football/Soccer

Ali McCann hoping to draw inspiration from Italy draw for Northern Ireland

Ali McCann (right) in action for Northern Ireland against Italy last November.

ALI McCann collected the shirt of Lorenzo Insigne after the dramatic goalless draw against Italy last November - but perhaps the Napoli star should have been seeking out the Northern Ireland man's jersey.

After all, the Preston North End midfielder was the only player from Ian Baraclough's squad named in the prestigious World Soccer's '500 Most Important Players on the Planet' list last autumn.

McCann was utterly unaware of that accolade, but appreciated it months later: "No, it's the first I've heard of that.

"It's quite nice, I didn't know about that. I'll need to have a wee search and have a look. Any sort of credit is flattering for me, so I'm happy with that."

He'd played his part in sending the new European Champions into the Uefa play-offs for this winter's World Cup in Qatar, Italy taking on North Macedonia tomorrow night.

Indeed Northern Ireland could, nay should, have beaten the Italians, but Conor Washington's late chance was cleared away.

Although he only turned 22 in December, McCann pointed out that he wasn't some starstruck kid: "I don't go out of my way to go and hound specific players for shirts, but I've got one from the Italy game.

"I got Insigne's after the home game, it was a good one to have. If it comes around, I'll take a shirt because it's a good wee memory, isn't it?"

The home display was one to remember, even if seems much more than four-and-a-bit months ago:

"It was a great night for us and to come away with a 0-0 draw against the European champions, it was a massive performance and we could have nicked it at the end.

"Any game in front of a full house at Windsor is brilliant and it was a great atmosphere on the night.

"We put in a great performance and if we had managed to nick it, it would have gone down as one of the best results in recent times.

"A draw at home with Italy gives us loads of confidence, even though it was a while ago."

McCann believes he and his colleagues can draw inspiration from that last game in World Cup qualifying ahead of the Nations League C matches this year and then the campaign next year to qualify for Euro 2024:

"You want to put yourself against the best nations in the world and we can take huge confidence from our performance that night.

"If we can play like that [against Italy] we should come away with some good results in the games going forward.

"We just need to apply ourselves in the same manner as we did that night and it can only be good for us."

His career has been mostly on the rise recently, winning two cups with St Johnstone before moving on to Preston North End in the English Championship.

However, his club career has plateaued somewhat, with McCann coming off the bench more than starting:

"Yeah, it's a different world from Scotland. I've played quite a lot of games, although obviously the last month or two I've not been playing as much. But we've been picking up good results at Preston, so it's a good environment to be in, and when I have got in I've just enjoyed it as much as I can. I'm just cracking on as usual, working hard, and then whenever I have played I've been ready."

Scouser Ryan Lowe replaced Scotsman Frankie McAvoy as boss in early December but McCann has no gripes with the man now in charge at Deepdale:

"The new manager has been great with me, to be fair, I've got no complaints on that front. It's just a bit unfortunate for me that we hit a good run of form and the midfielders were playing well. I just had to sit tight and keep myself ready, which is what I have done."

Over the next week his focus will be on Northern Ireland, with a trip to take on Luxembourg tomorrow night, then a home game against Hungary, both friendlies.

The principality are a different proposition now, having beaten the Republic of Ireland and Azerbaijan (twice) in World Cup qualifying:

"We know well it's going to be a tough game, considering the results they've picked up over the past campaign. So it's not maybe what it would have been years ago, it'll definitely be a tough game, so we won't be taking anything lightly anyway."

Similarly, Hungary are on the up, into Nations League A, after a decent Euros when they frightened Germany, as McCann recalls:

"They had a couple of good results, so we know they are going to be a very difficult game. We know we need to be 'at it', firstly on Friday, and then against Hungary on Tuesday. We'll prepare ourselves for that and we know we need to be on our game to come away with good results."

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access