Michael O’Neill basking in pride after Northern Ireland Euro qualification

Northern Ireland's Josh Magennis celebrates with manager Michael O'Neill after scoring to make it 2-0. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland's Josh Magennis celebrates with manager Michael O'Neill after scoring to make it 2-0. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Manager Michael O’Neill spoke of his pride at guiding Northern Ireland to their first major tournament in 30 years after a famous victory in Belfast.

A brace from inspirational captain Steven Davis and a first international goal for Josh Magennis saw them to a 3-1 win over Greece and sealed passage to Euro 2016.

It will be the country’s first summer finals since the 1986 World Cup, earning O’Neill and his squad a special place in Northern Ireland’s history.

“It’s just an amazing feeling, thinking what we have to look forward to,” he said.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved and it’s the highest point of my career for certain, either as a player or a manager.

“I have enjoyed this job, even when the results were difficult. I have enjoyed the challenge of trying to make an impact and improve football here in Northern Ireland and qualification for the Euros will do that.”

O’Neill will not want for plaudits in the days or weeks to come, job offers too perhaps, but he has no intention of hogging the limelight.

Instead he wants his players to take centre-stage.

“This is a special moment for and I’m lucky my wife and kids were here tonight because they’ve not been since my first match,” he said.

“It’s special to share these moments with the right people but it’s about the players.

“To see their reaction is where I get the real buzz.

“We saw all the good things in Northern Ireland tonight. The bond between crowd and team is really, really strong.”

Davis was a fitting figurehead on such a historic night, opening the scoring with a close-range finish then seeing an 18-yard header loop in to make the points safe.

But his influence on this side extends far beyond two goals or one evening’s work.

“Steven’s performance was out of this world. He is a magnificent captain,” said O’Neill.

“Anyone in the squad will validate that opinion.

“That gives you an indication of the type of player and person he is.

“He’s never been unavailable, never asked for a rest or come off.

“We’ve come from an era where Northern Ireland players were criticised for not being available at certain times, but in this squad we have real togetherness and spirit.

“For those players who’ve been through campaign after campaign and been through loads o disappointments - and had a lot of criticism - this is their moment as much as it is mine.

“The likes of Steven, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt, Aaron Hughes. You couldn’t meet better professionals.”

Davis admitted Northern Ireland were “desperate” to guarantee qualification in front of their own fans in Belfast rather than leaving the moment for Sunday’s match in Finland.

“It was a magnificent night and we couldn’t have asked for it to go any better,” he said.

“It’s a dream come true. We were aware it could have gone to Sunday, we were prepared for that, but we really wanted to get it done tonight.

“No better place to do it in front of our fans who have pushed us all along this campaign.

“If you need motivation for this then there’s a problem. I think all the lads were desperate to get ourselves (to France). It’s a huge achievement for the squad and the country and we’re going to enjoy tonight and then look forward to Sunday.”