Friday 23 March 2018

Michael O'Neill revels in Northern Ireland's send-off for Euro 2016

Michael O'Neill thought Northern Ireland had a fitting send off ahead of the Euros
Michael O'Neill thought Northern Ireland had a fitting send off ahead of the Euros

Michael O'Neill was pleased to see Northern Ireland enjoy the 'bon voyage' for once as they warmed up for Euro 2016 with a 3-0 victory over Belarus.

Four years ago, in O'Neill's second game in charge, his side were thumped 6-0 by a Holland team bound for Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine as Northern Ireland provided the pre-tournament opposition.

Yet ahead of next month's competition, when they face both of the 2012 hosts in their group, France-bound Northern Ireland extended their unbeaten streak to 11 games with goals from strikers Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and substitute Will Grigg.

There was understandably a party atmosphere at Windsor Park, which only intensified when fan favourite Grigg scored to spark more 'Will Grigg's on Fire' chants, and the team returned to the pitch after the final whistle to fireworks, confetti and a video montage as Belfast gave a fitting farewell to the first Northern Irish team to reach a major international tournament in 30 years.

"There was a good atmosphere during the game," O'Neill said.

"As I said to the players before the game, we have a responsibility to put on a performance. We're normally the warm-up act for countries going to the finals so it's nice to be in the position we're in and for the players to realise that and grasp that opportunity they had. I think they did that."

As far as tournament warm-ups go, this was a perfect night for Northern Ireland, who also managed to avoid both injuries and a possible suspension ahead of Saturday, when O'Neill will announce his final 23-man squad for the Euros.

Paddy McNair excelled in a midfield three, the trio of centre-halves kept a clean sheet and three of the strikers O'Neill deployed all found the net, Grigg for the first time on the international stage.

"It was ideal," O'Neill admitted.

"It was good to see them all looking really comfortable playing in a (back) three, game-by-game they're more accustomed to it, believe in it.

"It was perfect for the two lads to score in the first half. Conor again getting another goal then for Will because that's his first international goal and he's been in the squad pretty much consistently since I took the job.

"I felt when I took the job he was a player that had real capability to push on and become a key player.

"It's taken longer than maybe I thought at the time. He had a great season for his club, is going to the Championship and hopefully he can continue. It was great for him to get a goal."

O'Neill's squad for France will be announced at 12pm on Saturday, though he has already told the five players who will miss out and it is expected that Daniel Lafferty, Michael Smith, Ben Reeves, Billy McKay and Liam Boyce are the unlucky quintet.

Press Association

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