Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill was content with the way his side acquitted themselves in a 1-1 friendly draw against Qatar, a fixture he admitted was a somewhat “surreal experience”.
The controversial 2022 World Cup hosts are expected to be regular visitors to Europe in the seven years leading up to the tournament, but a clash with a reduced-strength Northern Ireland side on Sunday afternoon in Crewe was a quiet way to start that odyssey.
Only one stand was open, containing a vocal group of the Green and White Army, who chanted anti-Sepp Blatter songs for much of the game and at one stage sang to their opponents “how much did you pay for the FIFA World Cup?”.
But O’Neill saw it as a useful run-out ahead of this month’s crucial Euro 2016 fixture against Romania, particularly with the England and Scottish domestic seasons having wound to a close.
“I said to the players it was a bit of a surreal experience, playing Qatar in Crewe, and it may not feel like a proper international game,” he said.
“But I also said to the players to make sure they respected the game in terms of application and attitude.
“We have the players for eight days before they come back in for the Romania game and I think we got a lot out of this exercise.
“That’s very important because the team that will start against Romania is the team that is most game ready - fitness levels, intensity of training, what they show us on the pitch.
“It’s not just a case of picking the team based on the lines of who faced Finland last time out. It will be based on who is ready to play given the nature of the fixture.”
With regulars such as Steven Davis, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt, Chris Baird and Kyle Lafferty excused duty, O’Neill took a chance to look at younger players and others who have struggled for game time at club level.
The two who did most to further their case for selection were goalscorer Stuart Dallas, who put his side ahead with a close-range finish moments into the second half, and Manchester United’s Paddy McNair who flourished in a holding midfield role.
“I thought Dallas and McNair were brilliant,” said O’Neill.
“I’m delighted with Stuart. He’s been unfortunate with injuries and had to withdraw from four or five squads but since he’s come in he’s been excellent.
“Every time he gets on the pitch he’s not doing himself any harm at all. I’m delighted because sometimes it takes players a little bit longer to settle when they come into the squad and start to impact on my thoughts in terms of being a starting player.
“But Stuart has been able to do that straight away and young McNair has done the same. Those two performances, in particular, were excellent.
“You pick a 23-man squad but you want pressure for starting places and those two lads have done that with their performances.”
O’Neill also saluted a man at the other end of the spectrum, with veteran Aaron Hughes becoming the country’s most capped outfield player, ahead of David Healy, with his 96th appearance.
“Aaron is a player who will go on to get 100 caps,” he said.