Experience breeding confidence in Northern Ireland camp – Paddy McNair

Paddy McNair believes Northern Ireland will benefit from ever-increasing big-game experience within the squad when they take on Slovakia in Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualifying play-off final.

The match will be the biggest of the careers of many players in Ian Baraclough’s squad, but with a core around who reached Euro 2016 with a dramatic win over Greece in 2015 and were within a whisker of playing at the 2018 World Cup, the Windsor Park fixture is not as daunting as it once might have been.

“We’ve played in big games since (facing Greece) so I think there is a confidence in the team and a belief that we can go on and win on Thursday night,” McNair said.

Soccer – UEFA European Championship Qualifying – Group F – Northern Ireland v Greece – Windsor Park
McNair takes on Greece’s Alexandros Tziolis (left) and Panagiotis Kone (centre) in 2015 (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Going into the Greece game in 2015 it was a bit more new to everyone. Now we’ve been there and played in massive games, so I think there is a confidence. Everyone believes that we can get through.

“It’s not just international football, we’ve got a lot of lads who have played big games at club level as well. All that experience is brilliant. Having an experienced squad just gives us that little bit extra.”

McNair was a raw 20-year-old a few months removed from his international debut when he lined up against Greece five years ago, but is now a key fixture in the national team while his Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock last week called him the best player in the Championship.

It has not been a straightforward transition – within months of returning from Euro 2016 McNair had left Manchester United for Sunderland and then seen his first season at the Stadium of Light cruelly cut short by a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury.

“The knee injury set me back a year to 18 months from where I should have been,” he said. “That injury gave me a chance to step away from it as things happened really fast for me.

Middlesbrough v Coventry City – Sky Bet Championship – Riverside Stadium
McNair has earned rave reviews for his performances with Middlesbrough this season (Richard Sellers/PA)

“I was playing in the under-23s and then I was in the Premier League (with Manchester United) and qualifying for the Euros. It was a high then obviously a big low when I got the injury.

“I worked hard to get back from that and in the last two and a half years I have really kicked on and I am happy with the way I’m playing for club and country. At 25 if I can qualify for another major tournament that would be unbelievable.”

Northern Ireland set up the Slovakia fixture by beating Bosnia and Herzegovina in a penalty shootout in Sarajevo last month, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell among the heroes on the night as he saved Haris Hajradinovic’s spot-kick and saw Edin Visca hit the crossbar.

The Burnley goalkeeper is now preparing himself for another possible shoot-out against a Slovakia team who have changed manager since beating the Republic of Ireland on penalties a month ago – sacking Pavel Hapal and bringing in Stefan Tarkovic in a caretaker role.

Bosnia and Herzegovina v Northern Ireland – UEFA Euro 2020 – Play-Offs – Semi Final – Stadion Grbavica
Peacock-Farrell saves from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Haris Hajradinovic in the penalty shootout last month (Nedim Grabovica/PA)

Their squad includes veteran playmaker Marek Hamsik but they are without Martin Skrtel and Inter Milan’s Milan Skriniar.

Much of Peacock-Farrell’s week will be spent going through the heaps of data which coaches Steve Harper and Austin MacPhee have compiled on Slovakia’s squad and their penalty preferences – all in the hope the work ultimately proves unnecessary.

“Thankfully I don’t have to do the mad amount of man hours Austin and Harps are doing,” he said. “They will compress all that information into an hour-long video. They just drip-feed it in…

“I’ll be pretty much prepared for everyone. But it’s about staying focused within that chaos of a penalty shootout and remembering the plan, remembering the penalty taker.

“There’s a lot of information, it can be an overload, but not really. But hopefully we don’t have to get to that situation.”

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