Good but defensive defeat to Poland leaves Michael O’Neill’s team requiring a win

13 June ~ Northern Ireland’s opening Group B match with Poland was a game that had been 30 years in the making. In the end what ensued was a defensively solid performance but one lacking in attacking vigour and a disappointing defeat. It would be churlish indeed to say anything other than “hard luck, lads” but there is undoubtedly a sense that a change in approach will now be required.

Michael O’Neill was always likely to adopt a cautious outlook given the attacking talent on display for Poland and that proved to be the case. The defensive display was praised by the press and supporters, particular the containment of Robert Lewandowski, who failed to register a shot on target in the first half as Jonny Evans further enhanced his reputation after an excellent season. However the fact that keeper Michael McGovern was voted Northern Ireland’s man of the match said as much about the lack of attacking ideas as it did about his own outstanding contribution.

Winning the qualifying group and coming into the tournament off a 12-game unbeaten run had inflated expectations in some quarters for a side making their first finals appearance since 1986. But the inexperience in the team was at times exposed by Poland and after the match Kyle Lafferty even conceded “I think we were overawed”.

Fundamentally attacking impetus was absent and many were surprised by the decision not to bring on in-form cult hero Will Grigg from the bench. Of course, had Conor Washington’s late chance not been smothered by Wojciech Szczesny then things could have been very different but few can dispute Poland were worthy of their win.

Northern Ireland face a tough group, with an opening defeat to a side containing some top-class players largely taken on the chin. However consensus among fans and media alike is that a more positive performance against Ukraine is essential. Which means nothing short of a win will be good enough with a final group match against the world champions looming.

The team have succeeded in capturing the public imagination locally with a fanzone in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter packed for the game, while in France itself the camaraderie between the Northern Ireland and Poland supporters gained wide praise against a backdrop of trouble elsewhere. But more is now required to reward those fans and keep hopes of progressing alive. John Morrow

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