Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill in tribute to 'fantastic' players on 'proudest moment'

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill hailed his 'fantastic' players after they gave the performance of their lives to defeat Ukraine 2-0 and make sporting history.

The victory, secured by second-half goals from Gareth McAuley and substitute Niall McGinn, was Northern Ireland's first in the Euro finals and the best of O'Neill's managerial career.

The manager described the win as the 'proudest moment' of his football life.

Following the 1-0 defeat against Poland on Sunday to open the Group C campaign, O'Neill made five changes for the Ukraine game, dropped star striker Kyle Lafferty and opted for a 4-3-3 formation.

While Northern Ireland fans debated the decisions before kick-off, post-match they were saying the manager had made all the right moves after a stunning display from his side inside Stade de Lyon.

"It was a fantastic performance and a magnificent stadium to play in," said O'Neill.

"I said to the players if you don't look forward to a game like this you are in the wrong industry and they took that on board. We started brilliantly. We needed that level of intensity and energy and we maintained it throughout. We're alive and kicking in the tournament now which is great for all of us."

On leaving out Lafferty, and bringing on Josh Magennis as a late substitute ahead of the Norwich City striker, O'Neill said: "Kyle's disappointed obviously. Dropped is the wrong word.

"He started four games of club football last season so it would be foolhardy to expect him to play 90 minutes for our three group games.

"Josh is probably a better marker at set-pieces which is why I went with him late on, but Kyle is a massive part of the squad and he will have a massive part to play in the tournament going forward."

On playing Conor Washington, Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward as his front three, O'Neill stated: "I felt we needed to get more running power into our team. We had planned to play four at the back because of Ukraine's threat from the wide areas. How the two boys at full back (Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans) dealt with their two players in the wide areas was absolutely gigantic throughout."

Northern Ireland will now face world champions Germany in Paris on Tuesday knowing they have a chance of qualifying for the last 16.

"There are a lot of permutations left in our group so I'll just get on with preparing the team against Germany," said O'Neill.

"We could have lost and still technically had something to play for in Paris but we have a realistic prize now. They were down for longer than I wanted after the Poland game but when you get that reaction you can't ask for any more.

"It was probably the proudest I have felt, certainly in the dugout and probably in my entire football career. Now we look for another big performance against Germany in Paris."

Belfast Telegraph