by LIAM RICHNER
In front of the Windsor Park faithful, Northern Ireland defeated Slovenia 1-0 tonight to go 10 games unbeaten for the first time in their history, further proving that the nation’s stature in footballing terms continues to rise.
Manager Michael O’Neill has transformed the team from making up the numbers to genuine contenders against the best Europe has to offer, in what has been a magnificent turnaround in fortune.
One man that typifies this is Conor Washington, a former postman who was playing non-league football just four years ago.
The striker scored his first International goal on his home debut, after earning his first cap last week against Wales.
Like Northern Ireland, he has seen his career move in only one direction for the last couple of years: upwards.
He began his career at St.Ives Town in Cambridgeshire, before he made the move to League 2 club Newport County.
However, it wasn’t until he moved to Peterborough that he became noticed by the bigger clubs in England.
His prolific scoring record at London Road during the first half of this season got him a big money move to Queens Park Rangers in January for a reported £3 million pounds.
His story is parallel to that of Jamie Vardy. The former Fleetwood striker has also risen through the leagues in recent years. Last Saturday saw the Leicester City man score his first England goal in their 3-2 win over Germany.
Washington is only 23. He has a lot of improving and developing still to do, but at the rate he is going, he will be one of the top strikers in the country.
He is quick, prolific and always hard working. Three assets all managers dream their strikers of having. All he needs now is to experience and learn from his time in the Championship and with the national team.
Kyle Lafferty may still be Northern Ireland’s number 9, but he hasn’t been playing any regular football this season. A loan switch to Birmingham last week will hopefully give the striker the playing time he needs to be match fit for the European Championships.
But the future is Washington.