BELFAST: Paul Smyth was Northern Ireland’s hero after coming off the bench to mark his international debut with the winning goal against World Cup-bound South Korea in Belfast on Saturday (Sunday in Manila).
There were just six minutes left until the end of the friendly match when the 20-year-old Queens Park Rangers forward was sent on by Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill and it took him just two minutes to score.
Conor Washington overpowered a defender and Smyth got on the ball before cutting inside and then producing a composed finish that gave South Korea goalkeeper Kim Seung-Gyu no chance, to the delight of the Windsor Park faithful.
South Korea had dominated much of the second half but, significantly, were unable to add to their tally after the opening 45 minutes ended all square at 1-1, with an early Kwon Chang-Hoon strike cancelled out by an own-goal from Kim Min-Jae.
Smyth’s goal rounded off a memorable few days for the forward as, fewer than 48 hours earlier, he had been playing for Northern Ireland’s Under-21 side in a 5-3 loss to Spain.
“I just asked him had he got 10 minutes running in him because he played 90 minutes the other night,” said O’Neill when asked what instructions he had given Smyth when the player left the bench.
“I told him to go and enjoy it. He loved it, you could just see. His enthusiasm for the game is infectious, the boys love him, he knows all the players because he spent 40-odd days with them in France (at Euro 2016).”
South Korea coach Shin Tae-Yong was, understandably, rather less familiar with Smyth’s attributes coming into the game.
“I have to recognize that we had little information about this player,” he said.
Unlike South Korea, Northern Ireland won’t be heading to Russia 2018 after a controversial penalty led to a goal that saw them beaten 1-0 by Switzerland in a two-legged play-off.
South Korea kick-off their campaign June 18 against Sweden before further games against Germany and Mexico in Group F.
O’Neill, who turned down an approach from Scotland to stay on as Northern Ireland manager, gave international debuts to Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson and Norwich full-back Jamal Lewis.
South Korea fielded both of their Premier League stars — Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min and Swansea midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung — from the start.
It took the visitors just seven minutes to open the scoring.
Park Joo-Ho undid the home defense with a ball over the top and Kwon Chang-Hoon took one touch for control before shooting past Carson.
Northern Ireland, however, were back on level terms in the 21st minute.
From a 25-yard free-kick, Oliver Norwood, instead of shooting at goal, slid a pass round the side of the wall to Jamie Ward, whose hard-hit cross was turned into his own net by defender Kim Min-Jae.
South Korea went close to a second goal in the 57th minute when a diving Carson saved well after Park’s shot was deflected off Kwon.
As often happens in friendlies, a raft of substitutions around the hour led to a disjointed game.