Belfast Telegraph

It's three and easy as O'Neill's men sign off in style

Northern Ireland 3-0 Belarus

By Steven Beacom

They came, they saw, they sang and they sent the Northern Ireland team on their way to France with cheers ringing in their ears at Windsor Park.

And Michael O'Neill's players were the perfect party hosts providing the Green and White Army with plenty to celebrate, comfortably defeating Belarus 3-0 in this friendly.

The manager's new frontline partnership of Kyle Lafferty and Conor Washington did the damage, scoring at the start and end of the first half with substitute Will Grigg delivering the perfect finale in the 88th minute.

Everything O'Neill touches right now turns to gold - or in last night's case, goals.

Given that he was such a talisman during qualifying in Belfast - and everywhere else - it was fitting in the last home match before Northern Ireland play in the Euro 2016 finals that Lafferty found the net.

It was his first international strike this year. The way the Fermanagh native is feeling don't expect it to be the last.

QPR forward Washington will be confident too having now scored twice in his first three internationals.

And then there's Grigg, buoyed by the news that he is on his way to France. It seems like that everybody in the world knows the 'Will Grigg's on fire' song. Just like that tune, he could be a surprise hit at the European Championships if his clinical finish was anything to go by.

On the eve of this friendly O'Neill insisted he was more interested in the performance of his players on the pitch rather than the party going on around him.

Even for such a focused manager as him, though, it would have been impossible to ignore the feelgood atmosphere.

The Green and White Army packed into the stadium and belted out tunes all night long paying homage to their heroes.

Aiming to extend his team's unbeaten record to 11 matches O'Neill began with a 3-5-2 formation and had most of his big-hitters out on the pitch for the first whistle.

Four of the manager's more regular starters, Michael McGovern, Gareth McAuley, Oliver Norwood and Jamie Ward, were on the bench.

Roy Carroll, who signed for Linfield during the week and will play on a regular basis at this stadium next season, was in goal with Chris Baird operating in the centre of a three-man defence with Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans either side.

Conor McLaughlin and Stuart Dallas were given freedom to raid the flanks while Paddy McNair, who is looking forward to trying to impress new Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho, played in the holding midfield role with Corry Evans and captain marvel Steven Davis beside him.

The most interesting selection was O'Neill's decision to go with Lafferty and Washington up front.

That move paid dividends after just six minutes when with the Belarus defence all over the place, Egor Filipenko tried to clear, only for Lafferty's block to turn it into the net from close range.

It was his 17th international goal, and while it won't go down as one of his best, it was the ideal way to mark his 50th cap. Only David Healy, with 36, has scored more for Northern Ireland.

Lafferty revelled in the moment on what was an evening to savour for the 14,229 in attendance.

With Davis looking a class apart in midfield, the home side were in total control and doubled their lead on 44 minutes thanks to Belarus goalkeeper Andrei Harbunov. The vision of Davis picked out Dallas on the left wing. It seemed as though his cross would be collected by Harbunov but incredibly he punched the ball towards Washington, who gleefully nodded home.

Washington just loves Windsor Park. He has now scored every time he has played here having netted the winner in his home international debut against Slovenia in March.

The second half brought a flurry of substitutions with Alan Mannus getting welcome game time in goal.

Norwood, Ward and Grigg also came on with the Wigan forward receiving a rousing reception and another airing of his song.

Grigg replaced Lafferty just moments after the Norwich striker was involved in a needless melee with Belarus players.

Next into the action were Niall McGinn and Aaron Hughes, who was winning his 99th cap. The 100th should come against Slovakia next Saturday, Northern Ireland's final game before they take part in the country's first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

Thousands of those inside Windsor last night will be in France roaring the boys on and they will do so feeling on fire after seeing Grigg score his first goal at this level, superbly finishing fine wing play from McGinn.

It was a wonderful end to an historic occasion. More than anything O'Neill will be pleased that the momentum going to Euro 2106 has been maintained.

O'Neill's post-match speech on the pitch to the crowd was roared to the rafters as his players listened on. He's ready for France, so are his team and so are the supporters. We can all dare to dream.

Belfast Telegraph