NORTHERN IRELAND: Leap of faith leaves Paul Smyth jumping for joy

Paul Smyth following his goal for Northern Ireland against South Korea. Pic by Pacemaker.
Paul Smyth following his goal for Northern Ireland against South Korea. Pic by Pacemaker.

Paul Smyth announced his arrival on the senior international scene on Saturday with a moment of clinical composure within the energy-sapping 48-hour period of high emotion that surrounded promotion from the under 21s to the main stage.

Smyth’s rapid rise from Irish League star to Championship talent at QPR has been a reward in recent seasons for his ability to transfer talent across each additional test.

The 20-year-old winger returned home from England for international duty with a commitment towards Northern Ireland under 21s’ qualification towards the European Championships.

A Shamrock Park appearance on Thursday night over 90-plus minutes handed Smyth a showcase against Spain that led to senior boss Michael O’Neill turning to the former Linfield favourite - along with under 21s’ colleague Shayne Lavery - for a coveted full call-up.

Suspension ruled Smyth out of contention for the under 21s’ second fixture in Coleraine against Iceland and, as a result, the young ace was introduced on 82 minutes in front of a rousing reception from the Green And White Army.

Four minutes later he secured a spot in history as the first Northern Ireland international since George McCartney in 2001 to celebrate a debut cap with a spot on the scoresheet.

That match-winning cameo proved a whirlwind first taste of life at senior level.

“It was crazy to get the winning goal on my senior debut and just a great feeling,” said a delighted Smyth, who spent time with the senior squad at EURO 2016 in France as part of his development towards graduation out of the underage pathway. “At the start it was just excitement, to be fair, as to get called up to the senior squad is a massive achievement for anyone, especially at the age of 20 years old.

“I thought if I got my chance I would just try to take it.

“Obviously I know Conor Washington from both being at QPR and when I called for the ball he thankfully found me and then I just had one thing on my mind.

“Once that chance came up in front of goal I wanted to keep it down low and, thankfully, it hit the back of the net.

“I did get a bit nervous but also think that is always good to have a bit of nerves.

“I just kept my head down and concentrated on working hard for the minutes I got and am thankful to Michael for the opportunity.”

Smyth’s assured first appearance was aided in part by the familiar surroundings of the National Stadium at Windsor Park.

It was on home soil in Belfast in the blue of Linfield at 17 that Smyth captured the attention of Irish League fans and his cartwheel celebration following Northern Ireland glory was a common theme in club colours.

“The cartwheel is a trademark Paul Smyth celebration so hopefully you can continue to see it if I keep scoring goals,” he said. “I felt at home in general given Windsor Park is where Linfield played.

“But even just being part of the senior squad on the day and in front of the fans was exciting.”

Smyth was notified of O’Neill’s intentions following the Spain match and it was a moment to savour.

“I was freaking out because there are not many times you are called up to the senior squad,” he said. “Michael comes in and says you are going to be involved and that’s when the nerves hit, but then you have to put your game-head on, hope for a chance and I’m so happy I buried the chance when I got it.

“After the Spain match it was a case of massages and ice baths rather than training, just to get ready for Saturday.

“I would love of course to be part of the tour for the games against Costa Rica and Panama later in the year but that’s up to the manager.”