Shane Ferguson admitted he could hardly have scripted things better as he marked his 50th appearance for Northern Ireland with a wonder strike that saw off Estonia 1-0 in a friendly.
The 30-year-old revealed he had been battling injury in the build-up to the game but he came off the bench in the second half and settled an otherwise largely drab encounter by rifling a shot into the top right corner after 75 minutes.
“It just fell to me nicely,” the Rotherham defender said. “I heard someone from the side say, ‘Have a go’. I knew when it left my foot it had a serious chance. I thought for a second the keeper might have saved it but thankfully it just crept in.
“I’ve been struggling for a few days with an injury so I didn’t know if I was going to be fit for the last two games. To come in, 50th cap, and do it tonight, obviously it’s a great night for myself and my family. I’m delighted to score and to get the result.”
Ferguson came on early in the second half to replace Jamal Lewis – one of only two players retained from Thursday’s 4-1 win over Lithuania as Ian Baraclough rested his key men ahead of Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier against Switzerland.
As he did, he was handed the captain’s armband by Niall McGinn, himself getting a rare opportunity to lead out the side, to continue the tradition of players captaining the side on the occasion of their 50th cap.
“I couldn’t write it,” Ferguson added. “It was a really nice gesture from Niall as well – he didn’t have to do that.
“I’m delighted with the whole thing, just to keep that winning feeling in the dressing room and to keep that going into Wednesday.”
Ferguson’s strike seemed to come out of nowhere in a match where a much-changed Northern Ireland side often found themselves on the back foot.
It sparked jubilant celebrations, which Baraclough said spoke to Ferguson’s popularity within the group.
“He’s got a great left foot and when he’s in wide areas he can deliver fantastic crosses,” the manager said. “I’m not one to tell him not to hit a shot from outside the box and you could see there was only one thing on his mind as soon as he had the first touch.
“You can see what he can do. He’s a small player, diminutive, but he’s got a great strike.
“As a lad, you couldn’t ask for a better personality than Shane Ferguson, and I think all the players were off the bench celebrating. Albeit it was a friendly but we’re all delighted for him.”
A friendly it may have been but victory made it back-to-back wins for Baraclough, the first of his tenure, at a critical time in the qualifying campaign.
“Winning games makes you feel a lot better as a group, of course it does,” he said. “It gives you confidence and you go out there feeling you’re on a bit of a roll.
“We asked coming into this game, ‘Can we put another win on the board and take it into Wednesday?’ Our objective at the start of the week was to put three wins on the board in this window to put ourselves in contention, and this gives us a chance of doing that.”
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