Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland qualify for Euro 2016: Party time for fans after night that's set to go down in history

By Adrian Rutherford

Here oui go! Dig out the passports and dust off that old French phrasebook - Northern Ireland are off to Euro 2016.

Almost 30 years of hurt ended last night on one of the greatest nights Windsor Park has seen.

A 3-1 win over Greece secured qualification for next summer's finals - our first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

Watched by a near-12,000 crowd, including Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton, two goals from Steven Davis and another from Josh Magennis got the job done.

Now the finals await.

For a glorious few weeks next summer the streets of France will reverberate to the sights and sounds of the Green and White Army. What a party these fans are going to have.

And what a wonderful addition Northern Ireland will be to Euro 2016, a spectacle which is set to grip the country and create a new generation of footballing heroes.

Forget Paris in the springtime.

The French capital next June will be the place to be - plus Marseilles, Nice, Toulouse and the other great cities which await the invasion of supporters.

And we'll be there.

How good does that sound?

Even before the final whistle sounded last night the streets of Belfast were alive as jubilant fans celebrated long into the night.

This was a moment almost three decades in the making.

A generation of fans have waited for a night like this, when a new set of footballing heroes would join the likes of Armstrong, Jennings and co.

Go and write your legacy, Michael O'Neill had told them 24 hours earlier. Last night they did just that. Big time.

At the full-time whistle the likes of Davis, Chris Brunt and the missing Kyle Lafferty - the man who did so much to get Northern Ireland to France - had joined the list of Ulster sporting heroes.

'Michael O'Neill for First Minister' read one excited post-match Tweet.

As the players completed a richly deserved lap of honour, Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline echoed around the arena.

"Good times have never seemed so good," they sang, and never did it seem so true either.

The players celebrated as joyously as the fans. Among them Gareth McAuley, who excitedly waved a French flag suddenly sprung from somewhere.

The coming weeks will see another mad scramble for tickets as the planning starts in earnest for France.

Last night's win confirmed what most of us knew already.

At the pre-game Press conference on Wednesday a French journalist had told O'Neill that France was ready and waiting for Northern Ireland.

The manager may have been a bit more cautious, but it wasn't stopping fans from dreaming.

Expectant supporters had arrived clutching French tricolours alongside the more traditional green and white flags and banners.

Reporter Paul Gilmour was soaked by Kyle Lafferty and Chris Baird after Northern Ireland's win over Greece. #SSNHQ http://t.co/4EiYI4kfSr

— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) October 8, 2015

The rebuilding job under O'Neill has not been confined to the pitch. The redesigned Windsor Park is also taking shape, and it meant an extra 1,500 were crammed in last night.

It was still nowhere near meeting the huge demand for Northern Ireland's biggest game in 30 years.

The lucky 11,700 present had turned the stadium into a wall of noise and colour as kick-off approached.

The atmosphere moved up a notch as the teams entered and it seldom dipped as the match got under way.

Then, 10 minutes before half-time, came the moment fans had dreamt about. Stuart Dallas whipped the ball across goal and Davis was there to tap home.

Captain fantastic. Leading by example.

An explosion of noise erupted around the stadium. Windsor Park was jumping. "Let's all do the bouncy," they sang, before breaking into a rendition of "It's just like watching Brazil".

Another goal four minutes after half-time settled the nerves - an Oliver Norwood corner finding the head of Magennis. What a story his is. A former goalkeeper turned goalscorer in one of the biggest games for Northern Ireland.

Windsor Park was now in full-on party mood. It seemed it couldn't get much better... but then it did - Davis making it 3-0 with a header.

Game, set and match.

The final half-hour was played out in a near daze for many fans. Even a Greek goal near the end couldn't spoil the party.

And what a party it was.

But surely nothing to match next summer in France.

We're there!

Belfast Telegraph