Northern Ireland’s ‘amazing feeling’ after European Championship qualification

Northern Ireland head coach Michael O’Neill paid tribute to the team for buying into his philosophy after they sealed their place at next summer’s European Championship last night.

Two goals from captain Steven Davis, either side of Josh Magennis’ header, lifted Northern Ireland to a 3-1 win over Greece on a historic night at Windsor Park.

After leading the nation to their first major finals since the 1986 World Cup, O’Neill was quick to hail his players.

He said: “It’s an amazing feeling.

“We prepared the team well, there’s no doubt about that, the players deserve an enormous amount of credit because they have to buy into that and we built a really tight unit in the squad.

“But that’s down to the players. We’ve got confidence, we’ve got belief and that comes down to winning games.”

O’Neill, whose side will finish top of Group F if they claim a point in Finland on Sunday night, also had warm words for his skipper Davis.

The Southampton midfielder opened the scoring by stabbing home in the 35th minute before heading in just before the hour mark to get the celebrations well under way in Belfast. O’Neill said: “There’s all types of captains, but for me Steven epitomises everything you want in a captain: he takes responsibility on the pitch, he drives the team forward, he’s an example in terms of how he is as a professional, how he is as a person.

“I didn’t expect him to score an 18-yard header if I’m honest, but I’m delighted for him to get the goal because in my opinion he’s one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League, he’s a top, top, top player and he showed that again tonight.”

There have been some dark days in O’Neill’s tenure, who took charge of the country in 2011 and oversaw chastening draws at home to minnows Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Yet O’Neill never lost hope and believes Northern Ireland are now a much stronger proposition than when he was first appointed.

Indeed, they won last night without talisman Kyle Lafferty, due to suspension, which also ruled out Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin, while defenders Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes were injured.

O’Neill said: “I never doubted the preparation and I never doubted the way we went about the job. I felt if we could start to get results we could build something and that’s been the case.

“There were difficult games, there were difficult days, but you look at our pool of players and it’s a bit stronger than when it was.

“Tonight we were without four of our top players and yet we can come and win the game and win the game so well in such a tense occasion.

“Probably back in the days of the Luxembourg game we didn’t have that strength in depth, now we have that and I think the squad’s only getting stronger as well.”

O’Neill added: “We look forward to the draw now, it gives everyone something to look forward to. The preparations for France start now.

“We have to enjoy tonight, we’ve got a three point gap now. Our objective was to qualify and we’ve done that, it’s a lovely position to be in going into the last game.”

NORTHERN IRELAND:

McGovern, McNair (McCullough 85), McAuley, Cathcart, Brunt, Corry Evans, Ward (McGinn 81), Norwood, Davis, Dallas, Magennis (Boyce 78).

GREECE:

Karnezis, Torosidis, Moras, Papastathopoulos, Holebas, Tziolis, Samaris, Karelis (Mantalos 65), Kone (Pelkas 71), Aravidis, Mitroglou (Athanasiadis 76).

Referee:

Bas Nijhuis (Holland).

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