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The EFL stars leading Northern Ireland’s charge to Russia World Cup 2018

By Josh Wilde

Northern Ireland’s 2-0 win over the Czech Republic saw them secure second place in their World Cup qualifying group and take another step closer to a play-off spot.

Michael O’Neill’s team became the first Northern Ireland side to win five consecutive matches.

Seven players out of the 11 that started on Monday night currently play their club football in the EFL.

Norwich City goalkeeper Michael McGovern has struggled to assert himself at club level, with Manchester City loanee Angus Gunn preferred between the sticks.

However, while McGovern has found first-team opportunities limited at Carrow Road, he has been an ever-present for his national side, keeping seven clean sheets in eight games – the best record in Europe.

McGovern was beaten twice by World Cup holders Germany last October as Northern Ireland lost 2-0, but that is the only slight blot on an otherwise impressive qualifying campaign for the 6ft 2in stopper.

In front of him, Millwall full-back Conor McLaughlin has impressed after starting the last two games. Solid and reliable while good in the air, the full-back was rated among Northern Ireland’s best performers in their win on Monday.

It has been a good year for the 26-year-old, who scored his first international goal in a 4-0 win over Azerbaijan last November, before an impressive season with Fleetwood prompted Championship side Millwall to sign him up on a two-year deal.

Windsor Wave: Oliver Norwood acknowledges the home crowd after Northern Ireland’s win over Czech Republic (photo: Action Images via Reuters / Matthew Childs)

Midfielder Oliver Norwood has played every game during his country’s qualifying campaign.

On-loan at Fulham from Brighton, Norwood is a consistent and respected performer in the heart of Ireland’s midfield.

Aged 26, Norwood has played 46 times and over 3,500 minutes for his national side.

Ahead of him, Charlton forward Josh Magennis was Northern Ireland’s Man of the Match last Friday, scoring twice in five second-half minutes to put his side in command as they eventually beat San Marino 3-0.

Switched during the game from a wide role into a central striker’s position proved crucial and Magennis repaid his manager’s faith with a brace.

It has been quite a journey for the 27-year-old, who was plying his trade as a goalkeeper at youth level less than a decade ago, before making the drastic position switch.

Blackburn Rovers midfielder Corry Evans has played in half of Northern Ireland’s qualifying games and his battling qualities were crucial on Monday night as Ireland spent most of the game chasing the ball.

Leeds United’s Stuart Dallas is a threat down the left-hand flank. Replaced in the previous two games as he tired late on, the hard-working winger scored a crucial injury-time goal as Ireland beat Azerbaijan in June.

Queens Park Rangers striker Conor Washington has scored three goals in ten caps and his meteoric rise from part-time player and postman in 2012 to becoming a Northern Ireland international is nothing short of remarkable.

Washington was deployed in a tough lone striker role on Monday. Still only 25, he has the potential to be a real threat for club and country for years to come.

Up next for Northern Ireland, home against Germany and then a trip to Norway, before the probable play-offs when the EFL players experience of this lottery could prove a decisive factor.

Next up: Northern Ireland face Germany in their next World Cup qualifier (photo: Reuters / Kai Pfaffenbach)

This article was brought to you by The Football League Paper. On-sale every Sunday, the newspaper provides extensive coverage for all 72 Football League clubs with news, features and gossip plus comprehensive match reports.
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