Northern Ireland extend unbeaten run to 10 games with win over Slovenia
Northern Ireland 1 0 Slovenia
Published 28/03/2016 | 21:56
Northern Ireland set a new record of 10 games unbeaten by defeating Slovenia 1-0 thanks to a goal from Conor Washington on just his second visit to the country.
The benchmark of nine games without defeat, which had been set by Billy Bingham's team when they reached the 1986 World Cup, was eclipsed in Belfast on Monday night by the next Northern Irish team to qualify for a major international tournament.
Their match-winner was not part of the start of that run, though the Kent-born former postman may have done enough to get a seat on the plane to France for Euro 2016 after scoring four minutes before the break.
Washington's only previous sojourn to Northern Ireland had been for Peterborough in pre-season and the QPR striker ensured he made his mark during this trip by out-muscling two Slovenia defenders before firing past Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Goalkeeper Roy Carroll had been present for the 2-1 win over Finland 12 months ago when Northern Ireland began their 10-game sequence, and the 38-year-old had a major part to play in preserving the streak by saving a second-half penalty from substitute Milivoje Novakovic.
Whether Washington starts or not against Poland on June 12 in his country's opening fixture in France may depend on what formation boss Michael O'Neill selects.
He endured a frustrating 45 minutes on debut against Wales when paired with Kyle Lafferty, yet it was Jamie Ward who was selected alongside him in the 3-5-2 system that Northern Ireland had deployed in Cardiff.
Ward was one of four changes to the XI, with Washington's old Peterborough colleague Michael Smith making his debut at right wing-back while Shane Ferguson fulfilled the wide role on the opposite side.
The latter was pinned back a couple of times early on by marauding full-back Nejc Skubic, who should have done better with a shot he curled wide after Gareth McAuley had cleared his original cross straight back to him.
As he had been in Cardiff, there was little evidence of any international quality from Washington, but that all changed just before the half-hour mark when he gave the first indication he belongs at this level.
Collecting a poked pass from Oliver Norwood, Washington wrong-footed Miral Samaradzic and only Oblak's legs prevented him from making it 1-0.
However, four minutes before half-time, the former non-league footballer would not be denied.
From a long ball, Washington bounced off Samaradzic and then barged Skubic off the ball before shifting inside the vastly-experienced Slovenia captain Bostjan Cesar and drilling beyond a static Oblak.
Washington was quickly endearing himself to the Belfast crowd and he would have earned the respect of his team-mates too when he jumped to Ward's defence after a handful of Slovenian players took umbrage with a challenge on Oblak in the air.
Smith, who was himself impressing in one of the final auditions before O'Neill names his squad, nearly found Washington again with a cross from the right before Ward was withdrawn to allow Lafferty to join the goalscorer in attack.
Yet all eyes were soon on the goal at the other end when Jonny Evans was adjudged to have fouled Samardzic when a corner came in from the right.
Substitute Novakovic took on the responsibility of taking the spot-kick and went to Carroll's right, with the veteran wily enough to guess that way and keep the ball out.
He was called upon before the end too, pushing out an attempt from Valter Birsa that would have crept into the far corner, as Northern Ireland kept the momentum rolling ahead of the summer.