Northern Ireland's long-awaited return to major tournament ends with Poland loss
Northern Ireland's long-awaited return to a major international tournament ended with a narrow 1-0 loss to Poland in a contest which came exactly 30 years since their last finals participation.
An Arkadiusz Milik goal early in the second period of the Euro 2016 contest in Nice inflicted a first defeat in 13 on Michael O'Neill's side, who were the first to represent their country at a tournament since the class of the 1986 World Cup.
O'Neill's side were stubborn, resilient and well-organised on the French coast and while they shackled Robert Lewandowski, strike partner Milik's lethal finish just after the interval proved their undoing ahead of fixtures with Ukraine and Germany.
Of most frustration to O'Neill will have been his team's inability to carve out chances themselves, with possible opportunities evading Conor Washington, Conor McLaughlin and Steven Davis at the final moment.
The likes of birthday boy Pat Jennings, 71 , Gerry Armstrong and Jimmy Nicholl, currently O'Neill's number two, had all played on June 12 1986 and were all present in Nice to see those who would pick up a baton they left behind in Mexico.
A healthy support had flocked to the Cote d'Azur too and the camaraderie between the two sets of supporters was epitomised by Poland supporters clapping their opponents' pre-match national anthem.
On the pitch, it did not look to be so cordial when Gareth McAuley flattened Milik inside the first minute with a crunching challenge that was three decades in the making.
Poland enjoyed most of the possession and territory early on and it took some time for O'Neill's midfield, which was operating in a four rather than a usual three, to function cohesively.
For all the Polish domination, Michael McGovern was not tested until he kept out Milik's effort from range just before the half-hour mark.
The Ajax forward would try his luck from closer moments later but, after side-stepping Craig Cathcart he blazed off target.
Northern Ireland would enter the break on level terms, largely thanks to McGovern's fine reflex save from Bartosz Kapustka, yet they had failed to test Wojciech Szczesny at all at the other end.
O'Neill attempted to inject some drive in midfield by dispensing of Paddy McNair for Stuart Dallas, but he was soon trying to plot a way back into the game having fallen behind.
Six minutes into the second half Shane Ferguson lost Jakub Blaszczykowski and his smart cut back was ruthlessly finished off by Milik, who fired between Cathcart's legs and past McGovern's left hand.
It did not prompt a collapse from O'Neill's side, though he appreciated the need to now pose more of an attacking threat, eventually introducing Washington with 25 minutes to go.
The striker, who was delivering post when this tournament was on four years ago, has a rawness typical of non-league strikers and he was unfortunate that his touch towards Szczesny was just too heavy after he sped past Michal Pazdan and Artur Jedrejczyk.
A Lafferty overhead kick from distance that went wide aside, there was little else for Szczesny to concern himself with as McLaughlin and Davis failed to collect passes into the box.
Poland may have been unable to add a second en route to the first victory in a Euros group stage, but they proved too strong for a Northern Irish side finally back on the big stage.
TWEET OF THE MATCH:
"Hard luck Northern Ireland, great effort, chins up." - former boxer Barry McGuigan (ClonesCyclone) gives his verdict on the peformance.
Michael McGovern: 7
Conor McLaughlin: 6
Craig Cathcart: 6
Gareth McAuley: 7
Jonny Evans: 7
Paddy McNair: 6
Chris Baird: 6
Oliver Norwood: 6
Steven Davis: 6
Shane Ferguson: 6
Kyle Lafferty: 6
Stuart Dallas (on for McNair, 46): 6
Conor Washington (on for Ferguson, 65): 6
Jamie Ward (on for Baird, 76): 6
STAR MAN: Grzegorz Krychowiak. The Sevilla midfielder was asked in the pre-match press conference whether he could be the Poles' general and he certainly lived up that billing by dictating the game in the middle of the park. Northern Ireland may have ensured Robert Lewandowski was subdued, but they failed to stop Krychowiak behind him.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH: Arkadiusz Milik's winner was a ruthless piece of finishing. Having fluffed his lines prior to the break, he showed why he is more deadly with his left when he collected Jakub Blaszczykowski's pass and rifled it beyond Michael McGovern.
MOAN OF THE MATCH: Northern Ireland's inability to create that many clear-cut chances, and the fact Kyle Lafferty was left so isolated for so long.
VIEW FROM THE DUGOUT: Michael O'Neill dispensed of the 3-5-2 system he had operated with in the friendlies in the build up to this and it took some time for his team to adjust. Stuart Dallas was introduced at half-time but they failed to get hold of the game and it took too long to get Lafferty a strike partner.
WHO'S UP NEXT?
Northern Ireland v Ukraine, UEFA Euro 2016 (Thursday, May 16)
Poland v Germany, UEFA Euro 2016 (Thursday, May 16)
Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis told BBC One: "It's a disappointing evening. We have to be braver on the ball but it's a real learning curve for us. We always knew it would be difficult but we weren't good enough."
Lafferty added: "Organisation, fight, determination got us through to these finals but we lacked a lot of that today.
"Obviously we knew it would going to be a tough game for the defenders and the balls coming up to me I had to get hold of. I'm not going to blame anyone else, the whole performance was not a Northern Ireland performance and hopefully we can put it right on Thursday."