Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Belarus live updates, scores and pictures: Euro heroes in for a big Windsor Park send-off

But O'Neill will focus on performance not the party

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill insists for him it is all about the football at Windsor Park tonight and not the mighty Euro 2016 send-off his players can expect before, during and after the friendly with Belarus.

The fans are ready to pack into the stadium for Northern Ireland's final home game before the tournament to roar O'Neill's heroes on their way to France, via a training camp in Austria and another friendly in Slovakia next week.

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It is certain to be a spine tingling occasion, with the Green and White Army keen to show their appreciation to the team, but O'Neill says his focus will be solely on the performance of his players on the pitch rather than the party off it.

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"The important things is that the ground is sold out. That's a positive and shows how far this team has come. It shows how the team has responded to the fans too," said O'Neill.

"The players want to put on a performance as their families will be there too and it's our last game before we go away but I'm not expecting balloons and a lap of honour.

"My primary concern is to win. We are focused on the game and everything else is a sideshow."

O'Neill's tunnel visioned attitude is one of the chief reasons why Northern Ireland qualified for the Euros.

Four years ago they were cast in the role as sacrificial lambs in a friendly away to Holland before Euro 2012.

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That night in Amsterdam was set up to send the Dutch side off in style to the competition and with Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben running riot they did just that winning 6-0 against a youthful Northern Ireland outfit in one of O'Neill's early games

"It was difficult to go to Holland with a very young and inexperienced team but that was an experience you have to go through. If you look at the squad now Oliver Norwood is an example of a player who was involved in that game. Young Lee Hodson also played," said O'Neill.

"Looking back to that Holland game they had a strong side though didn't go on to have a good tournament.

"I was at Euro 2012 to watch our World Cup opponents Portugal and Russia and it did give me a real feeling as a manager that it would be a dream to take Northern Ireland into a tournament like that and I feel privileged that we are going to France."

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Yesterday First Minister Arlene Foster attended training at Windsor Park and met with the players. The Fermanagh woman had special words for Kyle Lafferty, Roy Carroll and Michael McGovern, all of whom come from her home county.

Each one signed their specially commissioned Irish FA billboards for the minister and they will be auctioned for charity in the future.

Tonight Lafferty doesn't intend giving the Belarus defence anything else but a hard time. He's after goals.

O'Neill, who has led Northern Ireland to a record 10-match unbeaten run, will play a strong side with all the big hitters involved and may mix things up tactically against the visitors who he believes will represent a 'good test' in Belfast.

"I want to continue with the run we are on. The players do too," he said.

"Every player has their own agenda going into the finals. It's clear they all want to start and they all see an opportunity to force their way into the side."

Belfast Telegraph