Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill urges Northern Ireland stars to raise the bar even higher

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has called on his players to start going through the gears as the warm-up for the Euro 2016 finals officially kicks off.

O'Neill named his squad yesterday for next Friday's friendly against Belarus and it's a final opportunity for players to impress the manager ahead of what promises to be a football feast to savour in France.

For strikers Will Grigg and Liam Boyce the time to impress is now, with only one attacking spot available to be grasped in the 23-man panel for the tournament.

Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington, Jamie Ward and Josh Magennis are expected to be on the plane to France but Wigan Athletic's goal machine Grigg and Ross County hitman Boyce will be looking to sparkle against Belarus to make the trip.

And in defence, Daniel Lafferty, Michael Smith and Luke McCullough are desperate to impress and feature as Northern Ireland await their first taste of major tournament action in 30 years.

"We will use the Belarus game to look at our options, our systems and how we play," said O'Neill. "It's also a chance to look at personnel and to give players opportunities. We are on a good run at the minute and we want to continue that run.

"It is important that we approach the match in the same way as we have approached all our other games since qualification.

"In those we are unbeaten. We have won two and drawn one. We have only conceded one goal and that was from a penalty."

The Euro 2016 squad will be named on May 28, the day after the game against Belarus at Windsor Park.

While Boyce has been a more regular fixture in Northern Ireland squads, O'Neill must be impressed by Grigg's scoring exploits, helping fire Wigan to the League One title.

The 24-year-old, who last played for Northern Ireland in a challenge match against Qatar on May 31 last year, has seven caps but this campaign he was top scorer in League One with 25 goals. Former Cliftonville hotshot Boyce began the season in scintillating form, finding the net 17 times, but the goals have dried up and a broken hand halted his momentum.

The most recent of his six caps came in the 1-0 friendly win against Latvia at Windsor Park in November. Washington's impressive impact since making his debut in the friendly against Wales - he hit the winner in Northern Ireland's 1-0 win over Slovenia in Belfast in March - has secured him a cherished place in the panel. That victory saw Northern Ireland go a record 10 matches unbeaten.

O'Neill's men travel to Slovakia in their final warm-up game on Saturday, June 4.

"The Belarus and Slovakia games will both be very important," added O'Neill. "They will both be good tests for us, particularly the game in Slovakia.

"They are what we need because when we come to the tournament we are going to have to reach very high levels, possibly levels that we have never reached before."

Meanwhile, Aaron Hughes could earn his 100th cap against Slovakia if he plays against Belarus. Northern Ireland face Poland in their first Group C game on Sunday, June 12 in Nice.

Northern Ireland squad: A Mannus (St. Johnstone), M McGovern (Hamilton Academical), R Carroll (Notts County); C Cathcart (Watford), J Evans (West Bromwich Albion), G McAuley (West Bromwich Albion), L McCullough (Doncaster Rovers), C McLaughlin (Fleetwood Town), L Hodson (MK Dons), A Hughes (Melbourne City),D Lafferty (Burnley), P McNair (Manchester United), M Smith (Peterborough United), S Davis (Southampton), O Norwood, (Reading), C Evans, (Blackburn Rovers), S Ferguson (Millwall), B Reeves (MK Dons), S Dallas (Leeds United),N McGinn (Aberdeen), W Grigg (Wigan Athletic), K Lafferty (Norwich City), C Washington (Queens Park Rangers), B McKay (Dundee Utd), L Boyce (Ross County), J Ward (Nottingham Forest), C Baird (Derby County), J Magennis (Kilmarnock).

Belfast Telegraph