Belfast Telegraph

Revamped National stadium toasts our Northern Ireland heroes new and old

By Paul Ferguson

One Windsor Park appearance, one international goal, one record broken, one little bit of argy-bargy and one ticket to France secured.

As home debuts go, this was a 'Carlsberg moment' for new boy Conor Washington against Slovenia last night.

All it took was just 41 minutes for the lad from Kent to become a hero in his adopted land, with a stunning individual goal that ultimately confirmed his selection in Michael O'Neill's 23-man squad for the Euro 2016 finals.

The 23-year-old's drive, determination, tenacity and tremendous finishing ability will give Northern Ireland an added dimension in attack - should the manager decide to utilise the QPR striker when he comes up against Poland, Ukraine and Germany in June.

Walking out at new-look Windsor with the images of George Best and Pat Jennings adorning the walls, getting ready in state-of-the-art changing rooms and playing in front of an Easter Monday party atmosphere, Washington must have thought it was always like this at the famous stadium.

If only he knew. He has joined Northern Ireland currently on a crest of a wave and is more than happy to hang for the ride.

Windsor, with the majority of the renovated south stand open, the Dr Malcolm Brodie press facilities available to the media and the Irish FA hosting a VIP reception in the new George Best suite, was finally resembling an impressive, modern day international stadium. The team is only too happy to reciprocate on the pitch.

But a word of warning for the players ahead of the 'farewell' match at Windsor Park against Belarus at the end of May.

Superstition among sportsmen is often seen as a sign of weakness, but it may be advisable for the players to avoid being featured in the official match programme like the plague. For there were two big player interviews in the 58-page glossy publication, one with Chris Brunt and the second with former Cliftonville hotshot Liam Boyce. Brunt is definitely out of France and Boyce is now a major doubt with a suspected broken hand.

While the focus last night was very much on the Northern Ireland heroes heading to France this summer, Windsor Park rose to applaud and remember one of the greatest players of all time.

In the 14th minute, Windsor Park burst into rapturous applause as the Northern Ireland football family remembered the late, great Dutch master Johan Cruyff, who sadly passed away last week, aged just 68.

Both managers joined in and when there was a break in play, even Northern Ireland's captain Steven Davis began applauding one of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of boots.

It was a touching tribute from a ground that has seen a fair bit of talent in its day.

Washington was only too glad to start writing his own chapter in Windsor Park history.

Belfast Telegraph