Northern Ireland stayed in the qualification hunt for UEFA EURO 2012 with a four-goal victory against the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park.
Goals by Aaron Hughes, Steven Davis and a Pat McCourt double ended the brave resistance of the visitors, who might have come away with more from this match had they finished off the chances they created in the first hour.
The hosts knew anything less than three points would strike a blow to their qualification hopes so Hughes's fifth-minute strike certainly helped settle the nerves. Sammy Clingan's looping corner was met at the far post by Gareth McAuley and the Northern Ireland captain slid in to score his first goal in 77 international appearances.
The hosts might have doubled their tally when David Healy's 42nd-minute effort from the edge of the area was superbly tipped on to the post by Jákup Mikkelsen. The Faroes spurned several presentable opportunities as Jóan Edmundsson forced a save from Lee Camp before Christian Lamhauge Holst screwed a shot wide on 34 minutes.
As Brian Kerr's side gathered momentum Hjalgrím Elttør then fired over, while Camp was fortunate Holst miscued from two metres after he spilled a corner at his feet. The Faroe Islands were no less threatening after the break and almost levelled on 57 minutes following a delightful flowing move which ended with Daniel Udsen blazing over.
It was a miss the midfielder would live to regret as, on 66 minutes, Northern Ireland struck their second, substitute Niall McGinn racing down the right and passing inside to Davis, who curled in from 20 metres. Now the hosts were in control and, five minutes later, McCourt scored after a quick one-two with Jonny Evans.
A mazy run by the Northern Ireland No10 almost created a fourth but neither Healy nor Evans could finish off the Celtic FC midfielder's approach play. So the 26-year-old showed them the way, with a cheeky 88th-minute chip. The 4-0 success takes Northern Ireland up to third place, seven points behind Italy, and two shy of second-placed Slovenia.