EURO 2016 QUALIFIERS: Michael O’Neill delighted to see Northern Irleand finish as group winners

Northern Ireland's Craig Cathcart celebrates scoring against Finland
Northern Ireland's Craig Cathcart celebrates scoring against Finland

Michael O’Neill is delighted Northern Ireland will head to Euro 2016 as group winners.

O’Neill’s men were seeded fifth when the draw was made, but the manager targeted a third-place play-off in next summer’s expanded competition.

Three wins from three at the start of the campaign meant automatic qualification quickly became the new goal and by the time that was achieved with one game to go, O’Neill was fully focused on finishing top of the pile.

No side had ever done that from pot five before - and it is unlikely to help much when the main draw takes place in December - but a 1-1 draw in Helsinki gave Northern Ireland a unique honour.

It might have been even better - Craig Cathcart’s first-half header negated by an 87th-minute equaliser - but like the jubilant travelling contingent of 2,200, O’Neill was not in the mood to be downcast.

“Of course I’m disappointed not to win the game but we’re delighted to top the group and everyone in the dressing room feels exactly the same,” he said.

“We’ve managed to top the group and it’s lovely to go to the tournament as group winners. We’ve certainly not got there by any good fortune.

“I genuinely believe we’re the best team in the group, the most effective team in the group and we finished as top goal scorers too.

“The players deserve enormous credit for that.

“You want the focus and motivation as high as possible for any game but having qualified on Thursday - and enjoyed ourselves on Thursday night - there was always going to be an element of fatigue.

“But we got what we needed.”