Northern Ireland’s long-awaited return to a major international tournament ended with a narrow 1-0 loss to Poland in a contest which came exactly 30 years since their last finals participation.
An Arkadiusz Milik goal early in the second period of the Euro 2016 contest in Nice inflicted a first defeat in 13 on Michael O’Neill’s side, who were the first to represent their country at a tournament since the class of the 1986 World Cup.
O’Neill’s side were stubborn, resilient and well-organised on the French coast and while they shackled Robert Lewandowski, strike partner Milik’s lethal finish just after the interval proved their undoing ahead of fixtures with Ukraine and Germany.
Of most frustration to O’Neill will have been his team’s inability to carve out chances themselves, with possible opportunities evading Conor Washington, Conor McLaughlin and Steven Davis at the final moment.
The likes of birthday boy Pat Jennings, 71, Gerry Armstrong and Jimmy Nicholl, currently O’Neill’s number two, had all played on June 12 1986 and were all present in Nice to see those who would pick up a baton they left behind in Mexico.
A healthy support had flocked to the Cote d’Azur too and the camaraderie between the two sets of supporters was epitomised by Poland supporters clapping their opponents’ pre-match national anthem.
On the pitch, it did not look to be so cordial when Gareth McAuley flattened Milik inside the first minute with a crunching challenge that was three decades in the making.
Poland enjoyed most of the possession and territory early on and it took some time for O’Neill’s midfield, which was operating in a four rather than a usual three, to function cohesively.
For all the Polish domination, Michael McGovern was not tested until he kept out Milik’s effort from range just before the half-hour mark.
The Ajax forward would try his luck from closer moments later but, after side-stepping Craig Cathcart he blazed off target.
Northern Ireland would enter the break on level terms, largely thanks to McGovern’s fine reflex save from Bartosz Kapustka, yet they had failed to test Wojciech Szczesny at all at the other end.
O’Neill attempted to inject some drive in midfield by dispensing of Paddy McNair for Stuart Dallas, but he was soon trying to plot a way back into the game having fallen behind.
Six minutes into the second half Shane Ferguson lost Jakub Blaszczykowski and his smart cut back was ruthlessly finished off by Milik, who fired between Cathcart’s legs and past McGovern’s left hand.
It did not prompt a collapse from O’Neill’s side, though he appreciated the need to now pose more of an attacking threat, eventually introducing Washington with 25 minutes to go.
The striker, who was delivering post when this tournament was on four years ago, has a rawness typical of non-league strikers and he was unfortunate that his touch towards Szczesny was just too heavy after he sped past Michal Pazdan and Artur Jedrejczyk.
A Lafferty overhead kick from distance that went wide aside, there was little else for Szczesny to concern himself with as McLaughlin and Davis failed to collect passes into the box.
Poland may have been unable to add a second en route to the first victory in a Euros group stage, but they proved too strong for a Northern Irish side finally back on the big stage.