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Northern Ireland deserve Euro 2016 shot at knockout glory: Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has insisted his heroic side deserve their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2016 after upsetting the odds to qualify from Group C.

By reaching the European Championships in France, O'Neill's side had already made history by qualifying for the tournament for the first time and last night they broke more new ground by progressing as one of the best third-placed sides from the six groups.

And this despite losing 1-0 to World Champions Germany in Paris, with golfing superstar Rory McIlroy watching from the stands.

With Turkey beating the Czech Republic 2-0, that result helped take O'Neill's men into the last 16 as Northern Ireland's goal difference proved decisive in the end.

It could have been so different had goalkeeper Michael McGovern not produced the best display of his life with a host of superb saves to deny the Germans.

For O'Neill this is another stunning triumph.

He continues to push the boundaries for his team and with a game against Wales or France to come in the knockout stages, who knows how far the side could go in France.

"The nature of the competition is such that small teams deserve the opportunity and we earned our right to be here," he said.

"We've earned a right to be in the round of 16. I think our players deserve the opportunity, they've done magnificently well. It (the next round) becomes a cup tie, a different scenario. We have to hope we produce an upset in a cup-tie format.

"We're a very small nation with a very small group of players. I'm immensely proud to be here."

McGovern, representing his country for only the 14th time at the age of 31, was magnificent.

"Michael had a fantastic night in goal, he's had a fantastic tournament," said O'Neill.

"He didn't put a foot wrong all night. The players gave him a round of applause when he came in the dressing room and when that happens you don't really need the manager to say any more to be honest.

"It was a phenomenal performance and up there probably with the great goalkeeping performances we've had in the past from the likes of Pat Jennings, Tommy Wright, Maik Taylor. He's an exceptional goalkeeper."

With McGovern set to leave Hamilton, O'Neill expects plenty of interest in the Fermanagh man.

"He's out of contract. His club want to sign him but he hasn't re-signed," he said.

"I believe there's a number of clubs in Scotland that have interest in him and I'd be surprised if there's not clubs in England that would be interested in Michael. How he has progressed in the last 18 months is phenomenal."

Joachim Low, the highly decorated German coach, was also praiseworthy of McGovern saying: "He has kept goal brilliantly and shown great reflexes. Three or four times he was completely alone in his goal, he put in a great effort."

Belfast Telegraph