Michael O’Neill hailed his super subs after two late goals saw Northern Ireland snatch a 2-1 win over Estonia in Tallinn to keep their Euro 2020 qualifying hopes on track.
Konstantin Vassiljev’s 25th-minute free-kick left Northern Ireland in danger of falling to what could have been a damaging defeat, but two goals in the space of four minutes from substitutes Conor Washington and Josh Magennis earned three important points.
Magennis was involved in both goals – and was at one stage credited with both – while fellow replacement Jordan Jones set up the second.
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Asked about his “inspired” changes, O’Neill smiled as he said: “I think the players had something to do with it as well.
“I thought we started quite well, but we’d kind of run out of ideas a little bit. We had a couple of opportunities before half-time where we maybe could have done better, but I thought the response in the second half was great.
“We ended up with probably too many attacking players on the pitch, but we needed to do that to get back into the game.
“I didn’t feel at 1-1 that we should settle, we had to try and win the game. The subs were made with the intention of not just getting back into the game, (they were made) with the intention of winning it.”
They did just that, with Magennis the star of the show. The Bolton forward appeared to get a touch on Washington’s shot as he fought to create space in the area and made the decisive intervention on Jones’ cross.
It was a sweet moment for the 28-year-old, who endured a difficult end to the campaign as Bolton slipped not only into Sky Bet League One, but also into administration, with club staff going unpaid.
“Josh is brilliant,” O’Neill said. “He’s a player that you couldn’t not have in the squad.
“He’s great to have around. You ask him to play a number of positions and he does it. I think it means so much for him to play for Northern Ireland.
“Jordan was disappointed he didn’t start, but his reaction was fantastic. Josh’s reaction was fantastic, as was Conor’s. That gives you half a chance if your squad has that type of togetherness.”
And claiming the opening goal is just as important for Washington, who had only limited playing time as Sheffield United earned promotion to the Premier League and now finds himself out of contract.
“I felt like Conor looked hungry when he came into the camps, in Manchester, in Austria,” O’Neill said.
“From the first minute he came in he wins us a free-kick, makes some great runs, got us up the pitch and in behind and that’s what we wanted him to do.”
It would have been a very different night had referee Fabio Verissimo not ruled out a second goal for Estonia six minutes before the break.
Madis Vihmann headed in but the referee awarded a free-kick for a foul on Bailey Peacock-Farrell, though it appeared the Leeds goalkeeper ran into Rauno Sappinen.
Estonia coach Martin Reim refused to blame the officials, however.
“Sometimes the referee gives it, sometimes not. It’s no use to criticise. It’s already done.
“Next time I hope our forward player is a bit more clever and doing things that the referee is not seeing.”