It was written in the script for Josh Magennis to score his first international goal the night Northern Ireland sealed their place at UEFA EURO 2016. With main goal-getter Kyle Lafferty ruled out of the home test against Greece through suspension, the hopes of a nation were placed upon stand-in striker Magennis, making only his second start for the Green and White Army, to find the back of the net and help send Northern Ireland to their first major tournament since 1986.
Magennis did not disappoint. After captain Steven Davis opened the scoring, the replacement striker doubled the advantage with his looping header on 49 minutes in a game Northern Ireland went on to win 3-1. Magennis’ goal was the moment when thousands of nail-biting supporters inside Windsor Park became delirious, with the prospect a first appearance at the European Championship more vivid than ever.
But what makes the Kilmarnock star’s fairy tale story even more remarkable is that the goalscorer started his professional career not as a frontman, but as a goalkeeper.
“It’s a massive difference going from a goalkeeper to a striker,” Magennis told FIFA.com. “Where my career has been and where it is now – and hopefully where it’s going – it’s been absolutely amazing.
“To say I was a goalkeeper and now I could play at EURO 2016 as a striker is unbelievable. The biggest difference for me is the visualisation and mental side of the game because it’s a completely different side of the spectrum. You have to have extreme mental strength to be a goalkeeper.”
Making a striker
Magennis’ transformation from goalkeeper to international striker began at Cardiff City in the summer of 2008 as a 17-year-old, when former Premier League player Neal Ardley, then manager of the Cardiff City Youth Academy, saw potential in Magennis as a forward, encouraging him to swap his gloves for scoring boots.
“Neal was the one who had the masterplan,” said the former Cardiff City and Aberdeen striker. “At the time, there were people asking questions like: ‘Why would you bother moulding a goalkeeper into a striker?’ The club had the resources to find a young, natural forward but I had a burning desire to work hard and not listen to the outsiders.
“I asked the question to Neal: ‘Do you see this like a science project or do you really believe that I could make it as a striker?’ He said he had a genuine belief in me and said I could make a career out of it and go on to do well as a striker.
“That was enough for me. I worked hard and never let negativity or anybody else’s thoughts deter me from where I wanted to go.”
Magennis’ transformation from shot-stopper to striker came as a surprise to many, including the Northern Ireland U-19 national side, who called-up the newly-transformed forward for an away international oblivious to the fact that he was no longer a goalkeeper.
“There was a managerial change at the time and the squad had already been announced, so when I turned up, nobody really knew that I had changed position,” he said. “I showed up with no gloves and they were saying, ‘What’s going on?’ But it got sorted out in the end and it’s something that gets laughed about now. When I go away with the senior side, Michael O’Neill [Northern Ireland manager] jokes about it because thinking about it now, it is quite funny!”
On the goal trail
Since then, Magennis has never looked back and the 25-year-old recorded his most famous goal to date on the night Northern Ireland secured qualification to EURO 2016, bringing an end to their 30-year wait for another major tournament.
“It was euphoric. It was such a huge achievement,” said a smiling Magennis. “Not only to get my first international goal at home, but to do it in a game of such magnitude was amazing.
“We went on to top the group for the first time in history – a fifth seed team has never been able to do that. People are still taken aback by it now but we knew this was a possibility because of the discipline and quality of the players that we have.”
Looking to France
After their historic qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland are preparing for their first-ever European Championship this summer, where they have been pitted against Poland, Ukraine and world champions Germany in Group C.
While smaller in stature and commanding far less experience at major finals than those nations, Magennis says that Northern Ireland should not be underestimated.
“There are a lot of very good teams that will be at the EURO, but there is only a handful that can say they topped their group – and we can say we did that," said Magennis.
“We topped the group and we did it in style. Whatever the general consensus is about Northern Ireland and where people think we should be, people will need to show us respect because, if they don’t, we’ve proven in the qualifying stages that we can punish teams.
“We’re not going to France to sit back, get our cameras out and take pictures. We’re going there as a fully-functional team and aiming to go as far as we can. As players, staff and as a nation, our aim is to go to France and win games. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.”