Three and easy for the North at Windsor Park against Belarus
GOALS from strikers Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Will Grigg gave Northern Ireland a perfect Belfast send-off before Euro 2016 as they extended their unbeaten run to 11 games with a 3-0 victory over Belarus.
Lafferty notched for the 17th time on the international stage in his 50th cap early on before Washington headed in on the stroke of the interval to make it two goals from two games in Belfast for him. Neither featured prominently for their parent clubs in the season that just concluded, but this was an indication that Michael O'Neill may have found the partnership which will start in the North's first ever European Championship finals.
In-form Wigan forward Grigg, whose viral chant was the song of choice on the Windsor Park terraces throughout, then got the goal the crowd had been begging for as he lashed in his first Northern Ireland strike late on.
O'Neill will reveal his final 23 on Saturday, though it was telling that potential cuts Billy McKay, Liam Boyce, Michael Smith, Daniel Lafferty and Ben Reeves were all missing from the squad having been conspicuous absentees at training on Thursday.
On his landmark appearance, Lafferty took just six minutes to make an impact. Washington turned the ball around the corner for overlapping wing-back Stuart Dallas and his cross into the middle was not dealt with by the visitors' defence, allowing Lafferty to stab in from close range. Both Chris Baird and Lafferty then had left-footed attempts blocked before a clanger from goalkeeper Andrey Gorbunov led to it being 2-0 on the stroke of half-time.
Dallas, whose lively first-half performance was a continuation of his impressive end-of-season form for Leeds, hung a cross under Gorbunov's nose and when he fumbled under pressure from Lafferty, Washington was on hand to head home.
It followed the forward's strike against Slovenia on his home debut in March, meaning he has now scored twice on the international stage despite failing to find the net for QPR since a January switch from Peterborough.
With the result seemingly beyond doubt ahead of the second-half, O'Neill could turn to his substitutes and he made six changes within half an hour. His only concern would have had would have been injuries or suspensions ahead of the Euros squad announcement and Lafferty was wise to step in as peace maker when Jonny Evans and Siarhei Kisliak came head to head
Lafferty was withdrawn himself moments later, along with Washington, as the Northern Ireland fans finally got to see the man they had spent most of the game chanting about. After drawing Belarus skipper Aleksandr Martynovich into a foul which earned him a caution, Grigg directed a header from Oliver Norwood's free-kick straight at Gorbunov.
The Green and White Army were desperate for a late Grigg goal to put the icing on the cake ahead of the French sojourn and after Gorbunov punched Niall McGinn's 88th-minute cross out to him on the edge of the box, he delivered.
Northern Ireland: Carroll (Mannus 46), McLaughlin, Baird, Jonny Evans, Cathcart, Dallas (Hughes 74), McNair, Davis (Norwood 46), Corry Evans (McGinn 74), Kyle Lafferty (Grigg 61), Washington (Ward 60); Subs Not Used: Hodson, McAuley, McCullough, Magennis, McGovern; Booked: Jonny Evans; Goals: Kyle Lafferty 6, Washington 45, Grigg 88.
Belarus: Gorbunov, Martynovich, Shitov (Politevich 77), Filipenko (Sivakov 38), Volodko, Korzun, Stasevich, Gordeichuk, Krivets (Hleb 70), Kislyak, Yanush (Palyakow 71); Subs Not Used: Klimovich, Chernik, Nekhaychik; Booked: Kislyak, Martynovich, Sivakov.
Ref: M Atkinson (England).