Conor Washington strikes to lift Northern Ireland to record unbeaten run

Northern Ireland achieve 10-game unbeaten sequence for first time after Washington showed pace and power to score against Slovenia

Not content with topping their group and qualifying for a first tournament in 30 years, Northern Ireland have set a record en route to Euro 2016. Conor Washington’s fine solo goal against Slovenia made it 10 matches unbeaten for Michael O’Neill’s side – the longest run in Northern Ireland’s history – and arguably secured his ticket to France in the process.

Another impressive feat from the team that O’Neill built was delivered by a player who epitomises their rise. Washington was playing part-time for St Ives Town in the Southern Football League four years ago. On Monday Queens Park Rangers’ £2.8m January recruit from Peterborough United scored his first international goal to settle a hard-fought affair and ensure Northern Ireland eclipsed the two nine‑game unbeaten runs established in the 1980s, when qualifying for World Cups appeared almost routine for Billy Bingham teams.

“It’s been a good night, a good week and, if you take it into context, a really good year,” said O’Neill, who admitted the pursuit of the record had been “a distraction” before Slovenia’s visit. “It’s a significant milestone for this squad. There are players who have gone 10 games without a win in the past, they’ve seen the opposite side and played in bad times. Now we have this moment we want it to last as long as we can keep it there.

“It’s nice for me because Billy Bingham was the manager who gave me my debut at 18 years of age, he believed in me at a young age. I’ve tried to take that into management in terms of giving players opportunities. At times we have to give players an opportunity at international level without really having huge evidence at their club to support that argument. You have to base that on your feeling on the player.”

Washington repaid his manager’s belief by beating three Slovenia defenders to score the winning goal and show Northern Ireland potentially have more to their armoury than Kyle Lafferty. Yet O’Neill was thankful for a veteran’s experience as well as a young striker’s late bid for inclusion at the European Championships as the 38-year-old Roy Carroll denied Milovoje Novakovic from the penalty spot to keep the visitors at bay.

There was a confidence about the hosts in possession and, in keeping with the foundations of their qualifying campaign for the Euros, a relentless work ethic and disciplined shape. That said, Slovenia were sharp, inventive opponents and had produced the finer moments before Washington’s power, pace and precision made its mark.

The 23-year-old, who qualified to play for Northern Ireland through a grandmother, conjured the first opening when he comfortably beat the central defender Miral Samardzic and forced Jan Oblak to save with his legs from a tight angle. His next contribution was more emphatic.

Chasing a long clearance from Carroll, the forward barged both Samardzic and Bostjan Cesar out of the way to win possession before advancing into the area where he cut inside Nejc Skubic. Three defenders down, Washington kept his composure to finish emphatically inside Oblak’s right-hand corner. O’Neill punched the air in delight. Given Lafferty’s inactivity this season, he requires all the options and quality available in attack and Washington’s goal was important beyond the context of this friendly.

O’Neill said: “You saw what Conor is about – that rawness, power and pace. Sometimes you don’t get that from players who are in a development system from a very young age. He has those attributes, which are refreshing to see as a coach. He’s so hungry to learn and keen to do well. For a player who’s just come into the squad, the reaction from the other members in the team to see him scoring shows how well he’s fitting in.”

The fired-up Washington and Oblak were booked after an altercation early in the second half and Windsor Park’s ire was reserved for the referee, Kristo Tohver, when he awarded the visitors a penalty. He was correct to do so, having spotted a push by Jonny Evans on Samardzic as the defenders jostled at a corner. Novakovic, a half-time substitute, drove his penalty low to Carroll’s right but the Notts County keeper saved well. The veteran made a better stop in the final moments from Valter Birsa.

A procession of substitutes from both teams left the contest disjointed but Poland, Ukraine and Germany – Northern Ireland’s opponents in France this summer – know they have an awkward obstacle to overcome.


Andy Hunter at Windsor Park

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