North unleash Grigg on Euros
Michael O'Neill described the selection of Wigan striker Will Grigg over Liam Boyce as his most difficult decision after announcing the 23-man squad for Northern Ireland's first European Championship campaign.
The squad was confirmed amid impressive fanfare at the Titanic Museum in Belfast, where images of the players chosen for France were shown projected on to the Giant's Causeway, and stars of past World Cups Peter McParland, Pat Jennings and Billy Hamilton were celebrated at an event attended by hundreds of supporters.
But behind the razzmatazz lay misery for five players who failed to make the final cut. Ben Reeves, Michael Smith, Billy McKay, Boyce and Daniel Lafferty were informed by O'Neill on Wednesday that they would not take part in Northern Ireland's first major tournament for 30 years.
"It was very difficult," said O'Neill of the omission of Ross County striker Boyce. "I'd determined I'd bring only four attackers, Josh [Magennis] can give us a different option out wide. Liam had a great first half of the season but then he got a hand injury and I didn't feel he was as good in the second half of the season. Will has just kept scoring, 28 goals in a team that has just been promoted to the Championship. He is in a good place and he came on against Belarus [on Friday] and scored his first international goal."
Asked whether Grigg could have the same impact for Northern Ireland as Marcus Rashford has for England, the manager replied: "Yes, why not? I named Will in my second squad four years ago but it was only on Friday that he scored his first international goal. It has been a long process and Conor Washington came to the party late too but has taken his opportunity superbly."
The squad, light on left-back options in the absence of the injured Chris Brunt, includes 36-year-old defender Aaron Hughes, who won his 99th cap in the 3-0 defeat of Belarus. O'Neill said: "It would have been a tragedy if a player like Aaron, who has given so much to Northern Ireland over 18 years, didn't get a chance to play in a major tournament. "
GOALKEEPERS: Alan Mannus (St Johnstone), Michael McGovern (Hamilton Academical), Roy Carroll (Linfield).
DEFENDERS: Craig Cathcart (Watford), Jonny Evans (West Brom), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), Luke McCullough (Doncaster), Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood), Lee Hodson (MK Dons), Aaron Hughes (Free agent), Patrick McNair (Man United), Chris Baird (Derby).
MIDFIELDERS: Steven Davis (Southampton), Oliver Norwood (Reading), Corry Evans (Blackburn), Shane Ferguson (Millwall), Stuart Dallas (Leeds), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Jamie Ward (Nottm Forest).
FORWARDS: Kyle Lafferty (Norwich), Conor Washington (QPR), Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock), Will Grigg (Wigan).
Sunday Indo Sport