EURO 2016 QUALIFIERS: Northern Ireland top Group F after draw in Finland

Northern Ireland's Craig Cathcart (20) celebrates against Finland
Northern Ireland's Craig Cathcart (20) celebrates against Finland

FINLAND 1 NORTHERN IRELAND 1

Northern Ireland were denied a seventh win of their triumphant Euro 2016 campaign, but a point in Finland on Sunday was still enough to see them break new ground by winning Group F.

In doing so they held off Romania and became the first fifth seeds in European qualifying history to finish top of the pile.

Craig Cathcart looked to have delivered even better when he headed home a maiden international goal in the first half but, after a lethargic display, Finland nicked a 1-1 draw three minutes from time through Paulus Arajuuri.

Last Thursday’s win over Greece had already guaranteed a trip to France next summer, but manager Michael O’Neill was desperate to finish the job as pool winners.

It was mission accomplished on that front and their return of 21 points tells its own story. They managed just seven in O’Neill’s first campaign at the helm.

That 10 of those points have come away from home is an incredible achievement for a nation so long afflicted by chronic homesickness.

Watford defender Cathcart was probably the only player on the pitch who salvaged something for his scrapbook, but his team-mates will have plenty of chances when Northern Ireland contest their first major tournament in 30 years.

O’Neill promised on the eve of the match that there would be no undue experimentation and he delivered a strong starting XI bolstered by the return of seven-goal top-scorer Kyle Lafferty and midfielder Chris Baird.

But with Finland listless and the vast Olympic Stadium sparsely populated on its last active night before demolition, the opening fell flat.