A former postman, Conor Washington is making a welcome habit of delivering at Windsor Park. This was the Northern Ireland striker’s third start at the stadium, a year since his making his debut for the country, and he has now scored on each occasion. Not bad for a player who had never stepped foot in Belfast until 12 months ago.
Washington had been joking this week that the highlights reel his club manager at Queens Park Rangers, Ian Holloway, had his staff cobble together in a bid to boost the forward’s fragile confidence was not particularly long and padded out by footage of his exuberant goal celebrations.
If he was unhappy under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at QPR before being reinvigorated by Holloway, though, he has rarely looked any but at home under Michael O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s manager. Washington’s 33rd minute strike against Norway secured a classy victory after Jamie Ward had given the home side an early lead and leaves Northern Ireland well-placed for a play-off spot at the halfway stage of their World Cup qualifying campaign.
O’Neill had targeted 10 points after five games, and if they can follow up this win with another against Azerbaijan in Baku in June, the prospect of reaching a second successive international tournament will be brought into sharper focus. World champions Germany had strengthened their grip on Group C earlier in the day with a 4-1 triumph over Azerbaijan but there is now daylight between Northern Ireland in second and third-placed Czech Republic on eight points.
Listening to Michael O’Neill talk in Dublin this week about how he used to favour arranging friendlies away from home because his team was invariably petrified of playing at Windsor Park underlines just how far Northern Ireland have come in five years under their vastly underrated manager. Tickets for this game sold out within 15 minutes of going on sale, and where once apprehension and edginess on the pitch filtered through to the crowd, now confidence and excitement abounds.
There was a minute’s applause before kick-off for Ryan McBride, the Derry City captain who died tragically aged 27 the previous weekend, and if there was a determination to deliver a performance to remember in his honour, they wasted no time going about it.
O’Neill had drilled into his side the importance of starting strongly and they certainly did that, taking the lead inside two minutes before doubling their advantage shortly after the half hour mark. The identity of the scorers will have pleased O’Neill almost as much as the quality of his team’s football, which was embodied by the understated class of Steven Davis, his country’s metronome.
Northern Ireland’s dependence on Kyle Lafferty upfront is gradually lessening, and with the Norwich City striker on the substitutes’ bench and Josh Magennis injured, Jamie Ward and Conor Washington made the most of being paired together in attack. Their constant movement and willingness to run the channels seldom gave Norway’s defence any peace and opened up space for the omnipresent Davis to roam into.
When Chris Brunt sent in a low cross, Ward’s first touch initially seemed to have failed him but he more than made amends, turning sharply before catching Norway’s defence off guard by curling a low shot from a tight angle with minimal backlift into the far corner. It was a finish of which any world class would be proud.
Norway hit the woodwork when Alexander Soderlund drilled a dipping left volley against the crossbar but their game-plan seemed to revolve largely around launching long throw-ins into the penalty area, which suited Northern Ireland’s robust central defensive trio. Iceland’s strength under Lars Lagerback was built on the strength of a collective defensive block as much as team spirit and work ethic but the new Norway coach clearly has work to do to get his latest charges up to that level.
Lagerback will have been furious at the way he which Northern Ireland sliced open his side for their second goal but it was beautifully orchestrated from the home team’s perspective.
Conor McLaughlin did well on the right, checking his run, drawing in his markers and then teasing a ball into Davis who burst into the space that opened up in front of him before threading a perfectly weighted pass into Washington. The Queens Park Rangers striker’s confidence is sky high at the moment and it showed as he slotted the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs to the delight of O’Neill on the touchline.
Washington might have added a second after the interval only for a shot to be deflected wide and Ward should have made more of an inviting opening but O’Neill’s men were rarely in trouble, with Michael McGovern only called into action once to push aside a free-kick from Havard Nordtveit.
A toothless Norway were embodied by Josh King, the Bournemouth striker who was starved of service, got short shrift out of Northern Ireland’s impressive defence and could not manage a single shot.