Northern Ireland heading to their first European Championship

Northern Ireland heading to their first European Championship

Northern Ireland are heading to their first ever European Championship after captain Steven Davis and Josh Magennis kicked off celebrations 30 years in the making at Windsor Park.

The nation has not been seen a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup but that will all change in France next summer after an unforgettable 3-1 victory in Belfast.

Michael O’Neill’s men knew three points would be enough to make history and, when Davis stabbed home Stuart Dallas’ 35th-minute cross, the promised land moved a mighty step closer.

But this was not a night when the Green and White Army would squeak home – this was a party.

Kilmarnock forward Magennis – a converted goalkeeper who had never scored an international goal before – made it two with a deft header and the inspirational Davis nodded in his second just before the hour mark.

The Southampton midfielder was just a year old when Billy Bingham’s boys went to Mexico and, having described this match as the biggest of his career at his pre-game press conference, he was a fitting figurehead.

So too Magennis, whose low profile and unique back story epitomise the spirit in this squad.

He would not have been on the pitch had Kyle Lafferty not been suspended – nor if he had made it with the gloves at Cardiff as a teenager.

Northern Ireland were without not just Lafferty but also the banned Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin and the injured Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes.

Their resources were tested to the limit, but the likes of Magennis, Paddy McNair and Corry Evans were not found wanting.

Their nerveless showing was met with unfettered delight by 11,700 frenzied fans - a number curtailed by construction work but including local hero Rory McIlroy and IBF superbantamweight champion Carl Frampton.

Northern Ireland began with bristling intent, with three corners in the first five minutes and one rasping shot into the side-netting from Oliver Norwood.

The febrile fans soon had something significant to celebrate – a Faroe Islands goal 11,000 miles away in Budapest.

Regardless of the result in Belfast, anything less than a Hungary win would be enough for O’Neill’s men.

In the end, Hungary’s comeback win was an irrelevance.

Northern Ireland thought they had a vital breakthrough in the 24th minute, Dallas gliding past Vasilis Torosidis on the left before cutting the ball across goal.

It trickled just behind the advancing Magennis, but he swiftly repositioned and hooked a shot goalwards from eight yards.

Vangelis Moras did brilliantly to get a healthy deflection on it and instead of nestling in the corner it rolled to safety.

Jamie Ward tried his luck from 25 yards as Northern Ireland surged again, but his shot was a fraction high and a fraction wide.

The visitors were being penned back by an industrious front three of Magennis, Dallas and Ward but it took a moment of vision from Corry Evans to crack things open.

The Blackburn midfielder, only playing because of Hughes’ injury, appeared to have few options available when he spotted Dallas on the move and pinged a precision pass from left to right.

The winger took a clean first touch and sent a measured ball across goal, where Davis was on hand to fling himself forward and stab home.

The reaction was electric, on and off the pitch, with Davis pointing to the skies.

Greece almost spoiled the script in first-half stoppage time, Kostas Mitroglou striking the post seconds after a brave block from Norwood.

But by the start of the second half French tricolours had begun to pop up in the crowd.

If it is bad luck to tempt fate, somebody forgot to tell Magennis.

The 25-year-old looked to be in no position to steer home Norwood’s corner but he arched his neck and sent a looping header past the despairing Orestis Karnezis.

A first international goal was followed by a huge, all-consuming bear hug for O’Neill, the manager who had handed him the opportunity.

It was job done – in terms of qualification at least – but Davis was not finished yet.

Just before the hour mark another corner exposed Greece’s dreadful marking, Davis netting his seventh Northern Ireland goal with a looping header home from the edge of the area.

The green shirts congregated in a touchline huddle around their inspirational skipper, united in joy and relief.

With matters settled so emphatically, the last 20 minutes were little more than an elaborate lap of honour.

O’Neill went to his bench three times to allow Liam Boyce, Niall McGinn and Luke McCullough a taste of the stellar atmosphere.

Greece finally gained a consolation three minutes from time, though Christos Aravidis’ close-range finish barely merited a reaction from either side.

This was Northern Ireland’s night, after three long decades of waiting.

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