Northern Ireland delivered the victory manager Michael O’Neill had called essential as they saw off Estonia 2-0 in their opening Euro 2020 qualifier at Windsor Park.
After a tough draw paired them with Holland and Germany in Group C, Northern Ireland made sure the most winnable fixture of all led to three points as Niall McGinn and Steven Davis struck in the second half, the latter from the penalty spot.
It was a first competitive win since September 2017, putting to bed the frustration of last year’s Nations League in which they failed to muster a point.
Euro 2020 here we come!!! #GAWA
— Carl Frampton MBE (@RealCFrampton) March 21, 2019
The first half had brought unwelcome memories of that campaign as Northern Ireland hogged the ball and kept their opponents on the back foot, only to go unrewarded.
The first clear sight of goal arrived inside two minutes when the ball fell for McGinn at the far post, but he cut across his shot to drag it wide.
Estonia’s towering defenders Joonas Tamm and Madis Vihmann repelled a series of dangerous crosses, the bulk of them from the right where McGinn and Stuart Dallas made a nuisance of themselves, but Kyle Lafferty – making his first start since September – struggled to impact play in the middle.
The best chance fell to Paddy McNair, who buried his face in his hands after somehow heading Jordan Jones’ looping cross down and over the bar from point-blank range in the 19th minute.
So, just to confirm, as it stands we’d qualify for Euro 2020, right?
— colin murray (@ColinMurray) March 21, 2019
Craig Cathcart was the next to go close, getting his head to another Jones cross – this time from the right – but the Watford defender could not generate the power needed to beat Sergei Lepmets in the Estonia goal.
There was another fine chance with six minutes left in the half when Dallas’ long throw was flicked on for Jones to strike on the turn, but his shot went just the wrong side of the post to keep it goalless at the break.
There were few signs of things changing in the opening 10 minutes of the second half as the hosts huffed and puffed without doing much to threaten Lepmets’ goal.
But that changed in the 56th minute when Lafferty showed good strength to lay the ball off for McGinn to rifle home, to the audible relief of Windsor Park.
McNair went close again in the 64th minute, beating Lepmets to Lewis’ cross, but he could not keep his header down.
But if McGinn’s goal had eased some nerves among the fans there were two warning signs for Northern Ireland.
First a corner was flicked on to Mattias Kait at the far post but the Fulham man could not keep his shot down.
Then the flag stayed down as Henri Anier ran through at goal, but Bailey Peacock-Farrell was quickly off his line to charge down the shot.
Moments later, though, Northern Ireland had the points wrapped up. Estonia captain Karol Mets went in high on George Saville, and after the referee pointed to the spot, captain Davis sent his penalty straight down the middle.
There were late chances for Saville and substitute Josh Magennis to add a flourish, but Northern Ireland had already done enough to give them confidence they can make it six points out of six in Sunday’s clash against Belarus.