Wednesday 17 January 2018

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill hails 'perfect' victory over Belarus

Will Grigg scored his first international goal late on
Will Grigg scored his first international goal late on

Michael O'Neill toasted a "perfect" night as Northern Ireland produced a 3-0 victory over Belarus in their Euro 2016 send-off at Windsor Park.

Strikers Kyle Lafferty and Conor Washington struck in the first half before substitute Will Grigg lived up to the chant which circulated around the stadium throughout with a maiden goal late on.

It extended the unbeaten run of O'Neill's side to 11 games and they were utterly dominant against a team that had not conceded in their previous five fixtures.

"It was ideal," Northern Ireland boss 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."

Grigg had missed out on the March friendlies, with O'Neill insisting he was better suited staying with Wigan, whom he led to the Sky Bet League One title with a tally of 25 goals.

However, his stock has since risen, certainly on social media, as a result of the 'Will Grigg's On Fire' chant which was an ongoing accompaniment to the action on Friday night.

And as the crowd desperately willed him to grab a goal so they could sing it again, he delivered late on by rifling in a half volley after Niall McGinn's cross had been punched out to him.

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

"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 will now announce his 23-man squad on Saturday and it was telling that, after being absent from training on Thursday, the quintet of Michael Smith, Daniel Lafferty, Ben Reeves, Billy McKay and Liam Boyce were all missing from the squad.

The likelihood is that those five will be cut from the expanded 28-man group which was announced for this friendly and O'Neill revealed those who will not go to France already know their fate.

"Those conversations have already taken place," he added.

"I don't think it would be fair to do it after the game, it was something that had to be managed throughout the week.

"I'll announce the squad publicly tomorrow but the players who unfortunately won't be with us have been informed."

After the final whistle, and the Grigg hype had died down slightly, the players and O'Neill returned to the pitch to fireworks, streamers and a video montage of their historic qualification campaign.

Having watched Holland say farewell after thrashing them 6-0 four years ago, it represented a nice contrast for the Northern Ireland boss.

"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."

Press Association

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