Dion Charles opened his international account with a brace to ensure Michael O’Neill enjoyed a winning return as Northern Ireland manager with a comfortable 2-0 victory over San Marino in Serravalle.
Charles bagged his first of the night with a razor-sharp finish in the 24th minute before adding a second with a diving back post header 10 minutes into the second half.
It was a night to remember for the in-form Bolton Wanderers striker and a satisfying one for O’Neill who took up the national reins for a second spell in December.
It was also the perfect start to Northern Ireland’s UEFA Euro 2024 qualifying campaign with Finland next up at The National Stadium at Windsor Park on Sunday night (7.45pm).
O’Neill, whose last game in charge was in November 2019, a 6-1 defeat to a classy Germany in Frankfurt, had called for “patience” against a gritty San Marino side rooted to the bottom of the FIFA rankings.
But it was a largely stress-free night for the visitors against La Serenissima whose only international win to date was a 1-0 friendly victory over Liechtenstein in April 2004.
Shea Charles was only five-months old at the time and the Manchester City youngster, now 19, played a key role in Northern Ireland’s opening goal.
Charles, showing a composure beyond his years in a holding midfield role, steered a perfectly weighted pass into the path of Conor Washington who raced down the right wing.
The Rotherham forward then fizzed a dangerous ball to the back post where Dion Charles, with 18 goals for Bolton Wanderers this season, pounced to fire home his first goal in a Northern Ireland shirt.
The Trotters hitman, who was lively throughout, still had plenty to do but he produced an instinctive finish with the outside of his right boot, the ball billowing the roof of the net.
Northern Ireland led 1-0 at the half-time break but it could have been more with Paddy McNair and Conor Bradley both forcing saves from Elia Benedettini in the opening period.
McNair’s header from a George Saville cross was palmed wide in the 14th minute and the 27-year-old also denied the impressive Conor Bradley with a sprawling save in the 44th.
Northern Ireland went in search of a second goal at the start of the second half and it came in the 55th minute when Charles headed home his second from a Jamal Lewis cross.
It was almost 3-0 three minutes later but Washington’s snapshot was deflected narrowly wide, the same striker thundering a rising shot narrowly over the bar soon after.
Michael O’Neill, who applauded a vocal travelling support on the final whistle, handed Cameron McGeehan and Isaac Price their debuts in the latter stages.
McGeehan, playing his football with KV Oostende in Belgium, slotted into midfield in the 67th minute before Everton teenager Price joined him when he was introduced in the 82nd.
San Marino’s only moment of note came in the second half when Nicola Nanni broke to fire past Bailey Peacock-Farrell, only for his effort to be ruled out for a marginal offside.
SAN MARINO: Elia Benedettini, Mirko Palazzi (Alessandro Tosi, 46), Filippo Fabbri, Dante Rossi (Michele Cevoli, 46) , Filippo Berardi (Danilo Rinaldi 60), Manuel Battistini, Robert De Maio, Lorenzo Lazzari, Alessandro Golinucci, Nicola Nanni (Matteo Vitaioli 85), Lorenzo Capicchioni (Michael Battistini 72).
NORTHERN IRELAND: Bailey Peacock-Farrell; Conor Bradley, Daniel Ballard (Cameron McGeehan 67), Craig Cathcart, Ciaron Brown (Isaac Price 82), Jamal Lewis (Shane Ferguson 74); George Saville (Jordan Thompson 74), Shea Charles, Paddy McNair, Dion Charles, Conor Washington (Josh Magennis 67).
REFEREE: Gergo Bogar (Hungary)