Conor Washington virtually booked his ticket to France with a Man of the Match performance at Windsor Park on Monday night.
Washington showed strength and guile to hammer home his first international goal to seal a 1-0 victory against Slovenia in Belfast.
The QPR striker – on his home debut – was determined to convince Michael O’Neill that he warranted a place in the Northern Ireland manager’s final 23-man squad for Euro 2016.
This performance will have bolstered Washington’s hopes, as will the display of Michael Smith who impressed on his full debut.
Goalkeeper Roy Carroll also reminded O’Neill of his value for the Euros, saving a second half penalty from Slovenia substitute Milivoje Novakovic.
Washington’s heroics arrived in the 41st minute, out-muscling Nejc Skubic in an aerial challenge before rushing into the Slovenia box, and after cutting inside Bostjan Cesar the striker rifled a low shot past the static Jen Oblak.
It was a blistering goal that showcased the confidence of Washington in only his second appearance for Northern Ireland – following Thursday’s 45-minute cameo against Wales.
It also saw O’Neill’s side stretch their unbeaten record to 10 games, eclipsing the record of the great sides of Billy Bingham in the 1980s.
“It was a fairytale tonight,” Washington said.
“To score in front of that crowd was just fantastic.
“It has to be one of the highlights of my career so far, without a doubt. It was a great experience.
“It was unbelievable. It is one of the best atmospheres I have ever played in, and that’s with only three of the four stands open at Windsor.
“Hopefully I get to experience it many times in the future.”
Reflecting on his display, Washington added: “I enjoyed it. As a striker you want to score goals, and I managed to do that.
“I had another good chance to score but the keeper saved it. I could maybe have teed up Wardy (Jamie Ward) but I went myself.
“I just worked hard and tried to fit into the team and work hard.
“It wasn’t a bad performance.”
Despite last night’s stellar showing, Washington admits he still has work to do to convince O’Neill that he should go to France.
“I wouldn’t say I am nailed on for France now. I will just take it one game at a time,” he added.
“I have to keep working hard at QPR and see where it takes us.”
Peterborough United defender Michael Smith savoured his big night on the international stage.
The former Ballyclare Comrades and Ballymena United full-back made his debut after being drafted in by Northern Ireland boss O’Neill.
“It was great to make my debut out there, but it was tough,” Smith said afterwards.
“It was amazing to make my debut at Windsor Park – it more than I ever thought it would be.
“It was a dream come true, and the fans were amazing.
“I played here during my Irish League career, but this was another level.
“I was coming here 10 years and supporting the lads, and now I am playing for the team.
“The manager just told me to go out and enjoy and soak it all in.
“There was pressure as well, but I just tried to go out and enjoy the atmosphere and the match.
“It was great to break the record.
“The lads have worked tremendously hard to get where they are and they deserve every success.”