It was 30 years in the making, and last night Michael O’Neill was finally able to reflect on Northern Ireland’s historic Euro qualifying success.
A 3-1 win over Greece at Windsor Park saw O’Neill’s men over the line in Group F.
A clinical brace by Steven Davis and a first international goal from Josh Magennis sealed their fate.
“It was a bizarre feeling to be honest...but it’s what we deserve,” proud manager O’Neill said afterwards.
“You kind of envisage that you might have to hang on in the game, because the prize is so great. But the players’ attitude was phenomenal.
“I’ve never had a feeling like that, nothing of such a personal nature.
“To have the honour to manage your country and go through what it takes to get here. I probably should have enjoyed the second half a bit more.
“The supporters singing for me to give a wave, personally I hate that. I never wave. As soon as I stuck my thumb up the Greeks scored, so that will never, ever happen again.
“It’s not in my make-up to be like that.”
O’Neill joins a small yet elite group of Northern Ireland managers to grace a major finals.
Peter Doherty guided Northern Ireland to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, while Billy Bingham led the nation on a crest of a wave to World Cups in Spain (’82) and Mexico ’86).
“It’s just an amazing feeling, what we have to look forward to,” O’Neill said of next summer’s Euros in France.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved tonight. It’s the highest point of my career, certainly, either as a player or a manager.
“But it’s for other people to write about, I’m not big on that. I don’t have a memorabilia room in my house. My house isn’t big enough.
“This is a special moment. I’m lucky my wife and kids were here tonight because they’ve not been since the Norway game, my first match (which Northern Ireland lost 3-0).
“To see the reaction of the players is where I get the real buzz. what people make of that down the line is up to them.”
O’Neill heaped praise on goal scorers Davis and Magennis.
“I’m ecstatic for Josh he was outstanding, his desire, his presence. everything. I’m delighted he got his goal,” O’Neill said.
“The third goal..I’m not sure Steven will ever score another 18-yard header. The performance of Steven was out of this world.”
O’Neill also hailed the influence of the 11,700-strong Windsor crowd last night.
“We saw all the good things in Northern Ireland. The bond between crowd and team is really, really strong,” he said.
“That makes playing at home a very special thing for the players.
“Look at Jonny (Evans). He was said there was no way he was not going to be at the game. He has to go back to West Brom tomorrow, had it gone to Sunday he said he would fly in to Finland.”
O’Neill will continue contract negotiations with the Irish FA following Sunday’s final qualifier in Finland.
“I have said all along that we would review the situation at the end of the campaign. My contract runs to the end of the tournament and then we will see.”
“Patrick (Nelson), the IFA board and myself will sit down and work out the best way forward,” he added.
“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 a lot of the work we have done has achieved that.”