Northern Ireland give home fans perfect Euro send-off
Published 27/05/2016 | 22:01
Goals from strikers Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Will Grigg gave Northern Ireland a perfect Belfast send-off before Euro 2016 as they extended their unbeaten run to 11 games with a 3-0 victory over Belarus.
Lafferty notched for the 17th time on the international stage in his 50th cap early on before Washington headed in on the stroke of the interval to make it two goals from two games in Belfast for him.
Neither featured prominently for their parent clubs in the season that just concluded but this was an indication that Michael O'Neill may have found the partnership which will start in the country's first ever European Championship finals.
In-form Wigan forward Grigg, whose viral chant was the song of choice on the Windsor Park terraces throughout, then got the goal the crowd had been begging for as he lashed in his first Northern Ireland strike late on.
O'Neill will reveal his final 23 on Saturday, though it was telling that potential cuts Billy McKay, Liam Boyce, Michael Smith, Daniel Lafferty and Ben Reeves were all missing from the squad having been conspicuous absentees at training on Thursday.
On his landmark appearance, Lafferty took just six minutes to make an impact.
Washington turned the ball around the corner for overlapping wing-back Stuart Dallas and his cross into the middle was not dealt with by the visitors' defence, allowing Lafferty to stab in from close range.
Both Chris Baird and Lafferty then had left-footed attempts blocked before a clanger from goalkeeper Andrey Gorbunov led to it being 2-0 on the stroke of half-time.
Dallas, whose lively first-half performance was a continuation of his impressive end-of-season form for Leeds, hung a cross under Gorbunov's nose and when he fumbled under pressure from Lafferty, Washington was on hand to head home.
It followed the forward's strike against Slovenia on his home debut in March, meaning he has now scored twice on the international stage despite failing to find the net for QPR since a January switch from Peterborough.
With the result seemingly beyond doubt ahead of the second half, O'Neill could turn to his substitutes and he made six changes within half an hour.
His only concern would have had would have been injuries or suspensions ahead of the Euros squad announcement and Lafferty was wise to step in as peace maker when Jonny Evans and Siarhei Kisliak came head to head
Lafferty was withdrawn himself moments later, along with Washington, as the Northern Ireland fans finally got to see the man they had spent most of the game chanting about.
After drawing Belarus skipper Aleksandr Martynovich into a foul which earned him a caution, Grigg directed a header from Oliver Norwood's free-kick straight at Gorbunov.
The Green and White Army were desperate for a late Grigg goal to put the icing on the cake ahead of the French sojourn and after Gorbunov punched Niall McGinn's 88th-minute cross out to him on the edge of the box, he delivered.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
"Will Grigg scores after brilliant work by Niall McGinn!!! Will Grigg's on fire... #NIRvBLR" - Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) jump on the "Will Grigg's On Fire" bandwagon after the Wigan striker scored his first international goal.
Roy Carroll: 6
Conor McLaughlin: 7
Craig Cathcart: 7
Chris Baird: 7
Jonny Evans: 7
Corry Evans: 7
Paddy McNair: 8
Steven Davis: 7
Stuart Dallas: 8
Kyle Lafferty: 8
Conor Washington: 7
Oliver Norwood (on for Davis, 46): 7
Alan Mannus (on for Carroll, 46): 7
Jamie Ward (on for Washington, 60): 7
Will Grigg (on for Lafferty, 61): 8
Niall McGinn (on for C Evans, 74): 7
Aaron Hughes (on for Dallas, 74): 7
Andrey Gorbunov: 5
Igor Shitov: 5
Aleksandr Martynovich: 5
Egor Filipenko: 6
Maksim Valadzko: 6
Nikita Korzun: 6
Sergey Krivets: 6
Siarhei Kisliak: 6
Mikhail Gordeichuk: 5
Ihar Stasevich: 5
Mikalai Yanush: 5
Mikhail Sivakov (on for Filipenko, 38): 6
Alexander Hleb (on for Krivets, 70): 6
Dzyanis Palyakow (on for Yanush, 71): 6
Syarhey Palitsevich (on for Shitov, 77): 6
Kyle Lafferty. A far more mature striker, now with 50 caps under his belt, he looked fitter and sharper following an end-of-season loan stint with Birmingham. He broke the deadlock early on and his presence lead to Conor Washington doubling the lead on the stroke of half-time.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
It had to be Grigg's late goal, which the crowd had been looking for as soon as he came on an hour in. Niall McGinn's cross from the right was punched out to the Wigan forward and he delivered the strike that prompted more 'Will Grigg's On Fire' chants.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
Michael O'Neill once again went with a 3-5-2 formation and his players look comfortable in that system, with Paddy McNair operating in a slightly deeper role in midfield. O'Neill will have been most encouraged by strike duo Lafferty and Washington's performance, while Grigg's goal will only have buoyed him further.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
Belarus had not conceded in five games and were supposed to provide a big test for Northern Ireland. They did not live up to the billing.
WHO'S UP NEXT?
Slovakia v Northern Ireland, Friendly (Friday, June 3)
Republic of Ireland v Belarus, Friendly (Tuesday, March 31)
With his name making the headlines off the pitch, Grigg was pleased to grab his first international goal for Northern Ireland as they continued their impressive run.
"To hear my name being chanted after my goal...I'm really pleased," the Wigan striker told BBC NI.
"Niall, (McGinn) one v one is one of the best I've seen so he's always going to deliver a great ball and I'm just lucky the ball fell for me."
The final Northern Ireland squad for the European Championships is scheduled to be announced on Saturday and the 24-year-old says "it would mean everything" to make the trip to France.
He added: "I've come through the ranks and to be in that final squad would be the icing on the cake, a dream come true."