By Ian Parker, PA
Shane Ferguson was Northern Ireland’s matchwinner against Estonia but Sunday night’s hero has had to climb down off cloud nine quickly as attention shifts to Wednesday’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Switzerland.
Ferguson marked his 50th cap in considerable style as he came off the bench in Tallinn to hit a screamer which settled an otherwise drab 1-0 friendly at Le Coq Arena.
What was only Ferguson’s second international goal sparked jubilant celebrations amongst his team-mates, a sign of the 30-year-old’s popularity in the squad.
But though his phone was still lighting up with messages on Monday, Ferguson was back to work with preparations to face the Swiss already under way.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) September 6, 2021
“Obviously we’ll look back at the game from last night and then take whatever we need to take from it and move on to this game,” he said.
“Switzerland – we know how big a game it is and we’re all looking forward to the test.”
Any meeting with the Swiss brings back bad memories from 2017, when a controversial penalty condemned Northern Ireland to a 1-0 defeat in their World Cup qualifying play-off, a cruel way to end strong hopes of reaching a second consecutive major tournament.
“That game – everyone was gutted about what happened,” the Rotherham left-back said. “You just have to put it behind you and focus on the game at hand…we try not to think about all of that.
“We know it’s going to be a really difficult game. We’re obviously on a good run now and we hope we can continue that.
“We’ve got a lot of young players coming through now and quite a lot of lads who have experienced major tournaments, and we want to get back to that as well.”
Switzerland come into the game on the back of a goalless draw with European champions Italy on Sunday, albeit one in which Jorginho missed a penalty for Roberto Mancini’s side.
Northern Ireland would arguably have preferred an Italian win – having one team run away with Group C would open up the fight for a play-off place behind – but Ian Baraclough’s men could still move up to second if they can get the victory at Windsor Park on Wednesday.
Confidence is high after Thursday’s 4-1 win in Lithuania kick-started their Group C campaign, and Ferguson’s goal made it back-to-back wins for the first time in Baraclough’s tenure.
To help them in their cause on Wednesday will be 16,000 fans as the national stadium gets close to full capacity for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“We’ve missed the fans massively,” Smith said. “It’s going to be an unbelievable atmosphere. We’ve seen this season how big a difference having the fans back is.
“It’s huge, it’s always a massive game whenever you represent your country. And in the table as well, if we can just get this result it really puts us in a great position. Hopefully we can kick on from there.”