Michael O’Neill admitted he feared Northern Ireland’s chance had gone before Paddy McNair stepped up with an 85th-minute winner in Belarus.
Northern Ireland’s hopes of making it four wins out of four to start their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign were certainly fading as time ticked down but McNair chose the perfect moment to score his first international goal, racing in from the left and firing under goalkeeper Aleksandr Gutor.
The win keeps Northern Ireland top of Group C and piles pressure on Holland, who may have two games in hand after their adventures in the Nations League finals, but will go to Germany in September nine points adrift of O’Neill’s men.
“You have to have believe in your team,” said O’Neill, whose side grew in stature in the second half and deserved the later winner. “I felt at times possibly the game was going to finish 0-0.”
Both of Northern Ireland’s previous wins – in the reverse fixture against Belarus in March and the 2-1 win over Estonia in Tallinn on Saturday – have come via late goals, a happy habit for Northern Ireland to have.
“We were just hoping something was going to happen, someone was going to step up and win you the game,” O’Neill said.
“That’s what Paddy did, it was a fantastic goal, a very good goal. Paddy’s really coming of age in this campaign with four games played. I’m delighted for him coming off the back of a serious injury, he’s not played a lot for his club this season but he’s made a huge impact for us.”
O’Neill’s side never seemed to run out of energy despite a second consecutive game in draining, humid conditions.
“It would be nice to come and win the games easily but we don’t expect that,” the manager added. “We knew we would have to go right to the wire.
“I think what these games, in particular, have proven is that the preparation has been key, to be able to do that, to have the training camps and get players to commit to that.
“A lot of the players finished their seasons on the 4th or 5th of May and they’re here on the 11th of June winning games in the 85th minute, right at the death.
“It’s a nice way to win the games, it shows great heart, great belief.”
Northern Ireland had started the game well but finished the first half on the back-foot as some loose passes allowed Belarus to push further forward.
But the momentum swung back in the second half and Northern Ireland finished the stronger side.
“At half-time, we spoke to them about needing to take more of the initiative,” O’Neill said.
“We started the game well but Belarus were coming into the game and had taken that initiative away from us.
“We felt it was necessary for us to step it up, we pressed higher in the second half and got chances early in the second half. We didn’t take them but we kept going.
“I felt our best chance was going to come from that area on the left side and ultimately it did, though possibly not in the way we imagined.
“It’s testament to the character of the team and not just the players who play but we’ve got 27 players here, not a single withdrawal and that tells you what a good squad this is. It’s a young squad, a developing squad with a lot of potential.”
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