Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Poland signalled a disappointing start to the Euro 2016 tournament for Northern Ireland.
Thousands of fans flocked to Nice where the Poles dominated at the magnificent Allianz Riviera Stadium. Arkadiusz Milik’s 51st-minute strike was enough to sink Michael’s O’Neill’s battlers who were marshalled by an all-East Antrim back three of Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart.
The Times got the views of five local fans who made the trip to the south of France to cheer on the team.
Gary Scott (Carrick)
I genuinely thought we did OK in the first half. We didn’t have much of the ball or any shots on target but we limited them to a few chances too. The game opened up in the second half, even though McNair wasn’t playing great I didn’t think there was any need to change the formation at half time.
Lafferty was very isolated and we had a few set-pieces in dangerous positions - especially the one Davis almost got on the end of.
Washington, Dallas and Ward all did well when they came on and Washington unlucky not to score but, for me, Poland were better on the day. But there’s no need to feel negative, it’s a disappointing performance but I still fancy us to get something against Ukraine.
What an atmosphere, what a stadium, the fans were incredible and it was great to be there. Bring on Lyon! GAWA
Andy Scullion (Larne)
I thought we looked more comfortable and more threatening when we started to play to our own strengths in the second half. I think there might have been an element of stage fright in the first half too.
I’m still optimistic for the next two games because I think the players will settle into the tournament now and maybe have a point to prove. Despite the result, it is fantastic to be in France and part of it all. There’s a real buzz and the atmosphere has been excellent. Polish fans have been friendly and good natured too.
Chris Pollock (Carrick)
It was disappointing end to a brilliant few days in Nice but there are lots of positives to take away from the GAWA invasion.
Firstly, what can I say about the GAWA? The fans are most definitely the best in the world. There was a carnival atmosphere in the city since we arrived on Friday. Both the GAWA and Polish mixed superbly throughout the few days.
In the match itself, I feel like the occasion may have got to some of our boys and we paid Lewandowski and co. too much respect. I was surprised to see Stuart Dallas omitted from the starting line-up, I think he deserved a start.
For me the formation we began with, coupled with our respect for the Poles allowed them too much space and time on the ball, particularly out wide and they managed to put in some dangerous crosses without forcing McGovern into a meaningful save. Our ball retention was also poor, too many balls pumped forward to and isolated Lafferty. We managed to ride out the storm and get to half time at 0-0.
The second half saw a change of shape for us which I felt made us a little more positive. Stuart Dallas was more willing to run at the opposing full-back.
Connor Washington almost made an immediate impact when he broke away from the Polish defence down the right hand side. This brought a renewed hope and optimism for the travelling fans. Unfortunately we didn’t really create much else, a few set-pieces were delivered poorly. Davis had a half-chance but just couldn’t reach it and Lafferty had a speculative over head kick from outside the box.
Obviously we are disappointed with the end result but the boys gave it their all as did the fans. Onto Ukraine and we need to pick up three points to have a hope of qualifying. Ball retention needs to be better and we need to play the ball into feet rather than up around Lafferty’s head. We also need to get more support in and around Lafferty. I would start with the team and formation we finished with tonight. We are certainly no worse than Ukraine and should take the game to them rather than sitting back and inviting them onto us.
Mark Montgomery (Ballyclare)
I got the impression that qualifying, and all the hype just got too much for Northern Ireland on the night. I can’t fault their effort though there just wasn’t on the same level of talent at that level of tournament football, even in comparison with Poland.
The match programme shows all the qualified teams’ Euro tournament stats and NI’s was zero and it showed! But it’s a good learning curve for the players, they know what they have to do now in the next two games and the Ukraine match looks like both teams will have nothing to lose so the chips may fall in favour of NI.
It also seemed like they tried to find Davis far too often at the expense of easier, more decisive passes and ended up getting caught. We missed Chris Brunt and his delivery, getting a yard and sending in a decent cross for Lafferty to attack. Getting through the first half 0-0 and only conceding 1-0 in the end was a good achievement, as it very easily could have been more.
Adam Simpson (Carrick)
June 12, 2016 was the date that the country had waited a generation for. Thirty years since our last involvement at a major football tournament and the supporters in Nice made the popular tourist resort a green and white carnival for the entire day.
The singing and dancing along with our Polish counterparts continued on the 30-minute bus journey to the fabulous Allianz Riviera stadium on the outskirts of the City.
The first real roar from the NI section of the stadium came when our goalkeepers made their first appearance on the pitch to begin their warm-up, shortly before their colleagues followed.
The Polish fans were also in good voice, while some celebrated prematurely as they saw an early shot miss the target from close range.
There were no real shocks in Michael O’Neill’s team selection with Paddy McNair included following several impressive displays in the warm-up matches but he was substituted at half time to give NI a more attacking threat in the form of Stuart Dallas. This move worked with Dallas impressive for the following half but unfortunately the quality from Poland eventually told as they opened the scoring with an impressive goal.
There were chance for Northern Ireland to equalise with Washington’s excellent solo run and Steven Davis’s opportunity when he narrowly missed connecting with the ball from close range but ultimately there can be few complaints as the Poles looked good value for the win.
At the sounding of the full time whistle, the GAWA belted another rendition of ‘It’s the Ulster boys making all the noise’ showing that there will be as much support at the next game with Ukraine, one which players, fans and management alike have surely highlighted as the game to win.