Michael O’Neill hails Paul Smyth impact on first Northern Ireland start

Michael O’Neill was delighted to see Paul Smyth grab his Northern Ireland chance with both hands as the QPR winger got a goal and an assist on his first international start in a 3-0 win over San Marino.

Smyth, who also had a goal disallowed, did his best to light up what was a largely drab affair at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland ended a run of five straight defeats in Euro 2024 qualifying but did not fully catch fire.

Smyth’s trademark backflip celebration was seen just five minutes into the match after he leapt to volley in a Jamal Lewis cross and six minutes later Smyth’s low cross was turned home by Josh Magennis.

It might have been even better when Smyth met Jonny Evans’ ball from deep with the ideal finish to lift it over the goalkeeper, but after a lengthy VAR check the strike was ruled out for offside and instead it was substitute Conor McMenamin who made it 3-0 with his first international goal late on.

Smyth, who this summer returned to QPR after two years with Leyton Orient, made his Northern Ireland debut five years ago but this was only his sixth cap.

“He’s had to be patient, Paul,” O’Neill said. “I gave him his debut against South Korea in 2018. We are five years on and his appearances have been limited since then.

“He’s in a good place at his club. He’s got himself back into Championship football, he’s played a lot of times for QPR this season.

“I know at his club he sometimes plays a lot at wing-back, but in that 4-3-3 not only does he give you width and crosses, he has an eye for a goal. It was a brilliant finish for his goal and a brilliant finish for the one that was disallowed.”

Northern Ireland’s Conor McMenamin (fourth right) scores his first international goal (Niall Carson/PA).

O’Neill was delighted with the way his side started but admitted they lost momentum too quickly, with the manager identifying Smyth’s disallowed 31st-minute strike as a key moment.

“When Paul’s goal was disallowed it kind of took the momentum out of the game with the time it takes to make the decision,” O’Neill said. “It was a long time for just an offside, I’m not sure why it takes so long.

“I thought in the second half again we’d chances, at times we got a little bit bogged down in our play, but equally it was good to get a the third goal.”

San Marino coach Fabrizio Contantini called Northern Ireland deserving winners, but also felt substitute Conor Washington should have seen red when caught Lorenzo Lazzari heavily on the ankle in the 66th minute.

Referee Bram van Driessche was sent to the monitor by the VAR but opted only to book Washington.

Paddy McNair (left) battles for the ball with Dante Rossi (Niall Carson/PA).

“In my opinion it was totally a red card,” Constantini said through a translator. “It is strange because the VAR tells the referee to go and see it and very, very few times the referee goes to the screen and decides not to show the red card. But at the same time it was not a key moment.”

Unsurprisingly, O’Neill disagreed, saying Washington’s challenge looked worse than it was when slowed down.

More frustrating for him was a late yellow card for Paddy McNair which rules the Middlesbrough man out of Tuesday’s match against Slovenia.

“I think the referee possibly got the wrong player,” O’Neill said. “I think it was young Callum (Marshall) who was more forceful in the tackle. I’m not sure if we can address that, but if it rules Paddy out it will be disappointing.

“He blows the full-time whistle 10 seconds later. Is it really necessary to brandish a yellow card in that situation? We’ll deal with whatever the outcome of that is coming into the Slovenia game.”


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