Paul Smyth stars as Northern Ireland see off San Marino

Paul Smyth made an impact for Northern Ireland (Niall Carson/PA)
Paul Smyth made an impact for Northern Ireland (Niall Carson/PA)

Paul Smyth marked his first start for Northern Ireland with a goal and an assist as they saw off San Marino 3-0, but although Michael O’Neill’s side ended a five-game losing streak it was a largely drab affair at Windsor Park.

QPR striker Smyth, earning a sixth cap, got his first competitive goal for his country just five minutes in and then teed up Josh Magennis to get the second moments later, but it took until the 81st minute for Northern Ireland to get a third as substitute Conor McMenamin got his maiden strike.

Victory over a side ranked 207th and last in the world will do nothing to solve the bigger problems that have plagued Northern Ireland throughout a miserable Euro 2024 qualifying campaign and beyond, but it does at least change the narrative as they recorded a first home win in over a year.

Looking to mix things up, O’Neill brought a number of fresh faces into his starting line-up, with Conor Hazard making his first competitive appearance in goal and first starts for Smyth and Dale Taylor.

Paul Smyth
Paul Smyth had an effort ruled out for offside too (Niall Carson/PA)

Almost immediately the two forwards combined as Taylor met Smyth’s low cross at the near post, but he was unable to keep his shot down from a difficult angle.

No matter, because two minutes later Smyth scored, arriving on cue to volley in Jamal Lewis’ dinked cross from the left.

And only six minutes later, Magennis doubled the advantage as Smyth turned provider, driving a low cross in from the right which Magennis turned in at the near post – his first goal since the winner against Kosovo in September 2022, Northern Ireland’s last Windsor Park victory before this.

Any fears that San Marino might upset a struggling Northern Ireland side dissipated and they continued to drive forward against their part-time opponents, with Daniel Ballard heading narrowly wide and Trai Hume sending a shot over from distance after being encouraged to try his luck by the crowd.

Northern Ireland score
Elia Benedettini could not keep Northern Ireland at bay (Niall Carson/PA)

Smyth thought he had a second in the 31st minute when Jonny Evans sent forward a long ball and he arrived to lift it over the goalkeeper with another volleyed finish, but it was ruled out for offside after a lengthy VAR check.

But despite the scoreline the atmosphere inside Windsor Park felt flat, to the extent that at one point in the first half chanting was even played on the PA system, and it was not helped when a torrential downpour before half-time sent those in the family stand scrambling for cover.

The 19-year-old Taylor had chances to emulate Smyth’s achievement on his first start after the break, but headed over from Paddy McNair’s free-kick and then squandered a better opportunity just before the hour, poking a shot wide after being played in by Magennis.

O’Neill then brought on another exciting teenager in West Ham striker Callum Marshall, one of three changes as Conor Washington and Isaac Price also came on with Smyth, Magennis and Evans departing and Ballard taking the captain’s armband.

Conor McMenamin
Conor McMenamin rounded off the scoring (Niall Carson/PA)

Washington was fortunate to avoid an almost immediate red card when he connected heavily with the ankle of Lorenzo Lazzari, but referee Bram Van Driessche decided a yellow card was sufficient after being advised to check the replay.

San Marino goalkeeper Elia Benedettini made a double save to deny Price and then Marshall but Northern Ireland were struggling to carve out clear chances as the visitors defended deep.

But McMenamin came on along with Brodie Spencer with a little over 10 minutes left, and the St Mirren winger was on the scoresheet moments later.

Benedettini got a hand to a powerful strike from Washington, but could only push it into the centre of goal, where McMenamin was waiting to wrap up the win for Northern Ireland.