Defender Aaron Hughes credited Northern Ireland’s staying power as they hit Azerbaijan with a stoppage-time sucker punch that strengthened their grip on second spot in Group C.
On a night when Michael O’Neill’s depleted team were under-par in the Baku heat, it looked like they had at least done enough to claim a point in their World Cup qualification campaign.
But a would-be satisfactory result was turned into a pivotal one when Stuart Dallas crashed home a late winner following Jonny Evans’ smart assist which fouled two Azeri defenders.
“Over the past few years we have known what we need to do to hang on in the game,” Hearts defender Hughes told Press Association Sport.
“We know how important it is that even when it’s not going your way not to panic, and to make sure you stay in the game.
“That’s what we did again and then we got a little bit of luck.
“Jonny’s played a great ball across to Stuart and he finishes it.
“All of a sudden you’re going home with three points and what more can you ask for?
“Maybe the performance wasn’t as good as it’s been in previous games so far in the campaign.
“But for the sheer hard work and the effort, not just on Saturday but in the last couple of weeks coming away and going into the camp, we get our reward with the win.”
With the Czech Republic drawing in Norway later in the evening, Northern Ireland now boast a four-point advantage in second place and head to San Marino next while the Czechs face group winners-in-waiting Germany.
Should results fall Northern Ireland’s way, it will mean they have a chance to seal second spot against the Czech Republic at the start of September with two fixtures still remaining.
“If we’d have come out of here with a draw I think we’d have been reasonably happy given the conditions, the way the game went,” Hughes added following the key success in Baku.
“That three points just give us that extra little step up to where we want to be.
“Going forward it puts us in a really good position in the group.”