Scotland 0-1 Northern Ireland: ‘Belief is back but NI will stay level headed’

“We’ve got that belief again. We won’t get too ahead of ourselves but it’s something to build on.”

Northern Ireland captain Paddy McNair said it best after Michael O’Neill’s youthful side took another stride forward in their development by stunning Scotland at Hampden Park.

Conor Bradley continued his remarkable year with the winning goal in Glasgow – his first for Northern Ireland with a curling strike that deflected into the top corner just after the half hour.

With a starting team with an average of just over 23, Northern Ireland dropped deeper and deeper as the game progressed.

As much as the hosts huffed and puffed, it was the travelling Green and White Army who could be heard at the final whistle amid a chorus of boos from the home support, as Scotland made it seven games without a win.

If you had said Northern Ireland would have been in this position six months ago, few would have believed you. In a injury-hit Euro 2024 campaign, O’Neill’s side were wilting as the chances of qualification from a promising campaign slipped away.

With key player after key player missing through either injury or retirement O’Neill, in for his second stint, had no option but to turn to youth.

It was painful at the time, and O’Neill himself admits there still might be the odd difficult night ahead, but Tuesday’s win was the latest step in the development of his team.

The win makes it three games unbeaten – all against sides who will be at Euro 2024 this summer. Denmark were first to fall at Windsor Park, but the draw with Romania away from home and Tuesday’s win at Hampden were almost more impressive.

“We have played two very good sides who will be off to Germany in the summer and it gives us a target,” O’Neill said.

“We’re obviously not going to be there, but it builds confidence and it builds belief in the players.

“That was the purpose of taking these games. Tonight was about the discipline of the team and the application of the team, and it showed again in terms of how we defended. There are still areas we need to improve on, of course there is, but the players were brilliant tonight.”

‘There’s a lot of togetherness’

Michael O'Neill and Conor Bradley talk after the match
Michael O’Neill praised Conor Bradley after the Liverpool defender’s crucial moment in Glasgow

While the outstanding Bradley will claim the headlines, there were others who really stood up.

Brodie Spencer, playing out of position at left back and himself only 19, produced a stunning block to deny Lawrence Shankland an equaliser and Eoin Toal, Trai Hume and Daniel Ballard all stood up in the rigorous defensive effort.

“I thought we battled so well to get a win. It was only a friendly, but to get the win is just brilliant,” said Liverpool right-back Bradley said.

When asked how much confidence the young NI team can take from their current run, Bradley added: “I think it will be massive.

“It’s a big confidence boost for us knowing we can beat a team going to the Euros, and against Romania as well, we can battle with a team going to the Euros.

“It’s brilliant for us. We are still a young team and there are loads of places we can still improve. We’re going in the right way and hopefully we can continue to do that, go into the Nations League and do well.

“We’re all buzzing to be fair and we’re really happy, but we all know a lot of hard work needs to go into it. We all know we can play a bit better in the game and have a bit more control, but the way we defended was outstanding.

“We were up against it for most of the game, so for us to come out of it with a clean sheet is just brilliant.

“There is a lot of togetherness because we are all around the same age. We all did grow up together as well. If you mix in a couple of experienced ones like Josh [Magennis] and Jamie Reid as well, it’s brilliant and really good.”

Northern Ireland will have two more friendlies in June before the Nations League starts in the autumn. Then, the business of 2026 World Cup qualification begins.

There may still be the odd painful night ahead, but the shoots are there for this team to keep growing in the right direction.

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