Skipper Davis on a high as Northern Ireland put on five star display against Belarus

Steven Davis
Steven Davis

Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis admitted his team got the perfect send-off ahead of their 2016 European campaign.

Michael O’Neill’s boys extended their unbeaten run to 11 games in a one-sided win against Belarus at Windsor Park, courtesy of goals from Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Will Grigg -- in front of 14,500 spellbound fans.

“It really was the perfect send-off,” beamed Davis. “It was great to send the fans home happy. Everyone came through the game injury free. We had three different goal scorers, so it was a great night.

“The supporters have really taken to Will (Grigg). They were really wanting him to score, but he thrives on that. He really made an impact on the game when he came on.

“He is coming off a fantastic season with his club, so that goal will do him no harm at all.”

Davis insists there is now a genuine battle places in the team ahead of France, adding: “Everyone is playing for their place in the team.

“It’s probably the strongest unit that I can remember. It all bodes well for the challenge up ahead.”

Northern Ireland’s next test before their Euro venue is a trip to face Slovakia next week.

“We are in a good position at this point in time,” he added. “We know it will be a difficult game going away from home, but there is a great belief in this squad.

“Slovakia have some good attacking players, but I don’t think we will differ to much in terms of how we play. Teams will have a lot of possession, especially away from home, but it’s what we do with the ball in the right areas that counts.

“We are on a nice unbeaten run and it would be great to carry that through to our opening match in France against Poland in Nice.

“Everyone is enjoying themselves and the send off we got from the supporters was brilliant. We knew that we had a job to do, but we also wanted to give the fans some reward for their great backing over the years.”

The old man of the squad, Aaron Hughes, was introduced late in the game which earned him his 99th cap.

He has been with the squad since making his debut against Slovakia in 1998 - and he simply can’t wait for the action to start in France.

“There have been some tough times,” he said. “But it helps us as players to appreciate this situation even better - this is certainly special..

“I’m lucky to still be around to be part of this. There is certainly something special about this group. There is great talent in the side, with some great young players emerging. You see the likes of young Paddy McNair coming into the side. He is merely 20 years old.”

Hughes hailed the influence of manager Michael O’Neill, adding. “He has changed the mentality of the squad.

“Michael has changed everything, even the facilities and other aspects away from football . . . little things that people sometimes don’t think of.

“We are much more professional. We’re not a big country and I think that sometimes that can be used as an excuse.

“But Michael had really changed that mind-set. Yes, we have improved on the pitch, but there are many things behind the scenes that have also changed.”

Midfielder Ollie Norwood insists that the team is in the best possible shape for the 2016 Euro challenge.

“This group have come a long way,” he said.

“We are now 11 games unbeaten, which we are very proud about. We’ve now set our sights on Slovakia next week.

“We are under no illusions, it will be a really tough test, but the game will ease us nicely into June 12.”

“We’ve got a couple of days with our families before we have a week in Austria.”

Norwood insisted that Grigg showed just what a lethal weapon he is when he thumped in his late goal.

“The crowd were not only urging him to score, but all the lads were urging him also,” quipped Norwood. “It was a fantastic finish. It was a superb ball in from Niall (McGinn). It just shows the confidence Will is playing with at the minute.”