By Ian Parker, P.A.
Michael O’Neill called Northern Ireland’s 2-0 win over Denmark a step in the right direction but knows his side remain a long way from the finished article.
In their final Group H fixture of a miserable campaign, O’Neill’s side finally beat someone other than minnows San Marino as second-half goals from Isaac Price and Dion Charles earned Northern Ireland their first competitive win over a team ranked above them since they beat Ukraine in June 2016.
It will not paper over the long list of issues facing O’Neill as he tries to rebuild his injured-ravaged squad, but it will provide a much-needed shot of belief and confidence at the end of a year which has seen supplies of both run low.
O’Neill has had to read on several young players, more than he would have liked, whose introduction to international football has been a tough one, but a night like this can change the narrative.
“It’s totally different,” O’Neill said of the mood inside his dressing room. “You can see the young lads and you can see what it means to them. The ones who were involved in the previous campaign, I think they only won one game and this campaign we’ve only won three.
“We’ve been challenged in this campaign so they’ll take a lot from tonight.
“It’s a good result against a good team but that’s all it is. Hopefully they’ll come back in March with added confidence and belief, regardless of who the opposition are…
“I’m not getting carried away. “It’s a step in the right direction and we have to take more steps in the right direction.”
Northern Ireland started well, with Dion Charles hitting the post eight minutes in before Eoin Toal headed wide.
Gradually Denmark, who have finished top of Euro 2024 qualifying Group H despite the loss, grew into the game but Conor Hazard, at fault for Finland’s second goal in Friday’s 4-0 defeat, made two fine saves before half-time to keep the scores level, and the game changed after the break.
Jamal Lewis, having one of his best nights in a Northern Ireland shirt, started the move that led to the first, moving the ball inside via Dion Charles and Shea Charles for Price to rifle in his second international goal.
Then Conor McMenamin came off the bench to send in the low ball that Dion Charles swept home.
After a long and difficult campaign in which Northern Ireland suffered five 1-0 defeats and failed to score in six of their 10 games, it was a welcome moment.
“It’s a very difficult campaign to judge,” O’Neill said. “To be competitive in any campaign we will need a consistency of selection, there’s no getting away from that.
“When we came into this campaign we felt we were going to have a different team and that we would have younger players around it who could energize the team and give us a lift if and when we needed it.
“We’ve ended up playing with a lot of those younger players more than we expected to but they’ve been terrific. Shea Charles has played nine out of 10 and was suspended for one, he’s barely missed a minute and his level of performance is top drawer.
“Isaac as well. I went to see Isaac in February playing in an under-20 game for Everton. I didn’t envisage he would be starting six or seven games, scoring two goals, playing in a variety of positions.
“These lads have gone through a massive transformation in their careers in the last eight months, never mind adapting to playing international football as well.”