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McGovern is still hungry for big tournament football

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern has sampled a taste of big tournament football - and he is hungry for more. The 32-year-old Norwich City star believes victory over Norway on Sunday at Windsor Park can take him and his team-mates a major step closer towards it.

No doubt, should Northern Ireland triumph in the World Cup qualifier at the weekend, McGovern will have played a key role.

He has become an important player for his country. The Fermanagh man travelled to the Euro 2016 finals last summer as the Hamilton Accies ace relishing the opportunity to feature in the competition. He arrived home a national hero, landing a move to Carrow Road in the process.

His spectacular display against World Champions Germany in Paris during a 1-0 defeat, when he pulled off a number of high class saves, is the one that Northern Ireland supporters will never forget, but it's worth remembering that he also performed admirably in the other matches versus Poland, Ukraine and Wales as Michael O'Neill's side made it through to the knockout stages.

The one-time Enniskillen Town ace loved every moment, revealing that he had the time of his football life. Now he is determined to help Northern Ireland return to the big stage and he believes the experiences of the Euros will stand O'Neill's men in good stead for the battles ahead.

First up is Norway, who lie in fifth place in Group C four points behind second placed Northern Ireland. While McGovern's old adversaries Germany are running away with things at the top of the table, Northern Ireland are in control of the mini-league between the rest. Keep it that way and runners-up spot and a play-off to go to the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia should be theirs.

McGovern feels that testing themselves in a major tournament last year and leaving it with confidence enhanced helped develop the side.

"Qualifying and playing in the Euro finals was an incredible experience for the team. It showed us what tournament football was all about and helped us develop and improve as a side," said McGovern, who started his professional career with Celtic.

"We gained a lot of confidence from our performances in France and have taken it into the World Cup campaign.

"We are in second place behind Germany in our group and the belief amongst the players is that we can stay there and earn a play-off.

"Beating Norway at Windsor Park would be a major boost in that aim and we'll go into that game feeling that it is a great opportunity to put another win on the board.

"It would also set us up for another hugely important match in Azerbaijan in June.

"Having played in the Euro finals, everyone wants to make it to another major tournament. We all know that to play in a World Cup would be special and are determined to give it our best shot."

In the four qualifiers to date, McGovern and his defence have kept three clean sheets.

"That has been very pleasing. The boys in front of me have done an excellent job and our intention will be to again keep it tight against Norway," said McGovern.

"They are playing catch up in the group now so will be coming to Windsor looking for a victory.

"It is going to be a test for us, but if we play to our capabilities, with our fans behind us we believe we can make it a tough night for them."

While McGovern has delivered on the international scene, he would admit that his club campaign has been mixed.

Overjoyed to move to Norwich following his Euro 2016 heroics, the plan was to help push for promotion to the Premier League but inconsistent results have put paid to that and also led to the sacking of manager Alex Neil who signed him. McGovern has also been a frustrated spectator on the sidelines for a period due to injury.

Winning the George Best Breakthrough prize at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards in February was a timely boost, following in the footsteps of international team-mates Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Niall McGinn and Conor McLaughlin.

Michael's proud dad Terry collected the trophy from Northern Ireland goalkeeping legend Pat Jennings on his son's behalf.

"That was a big boost for me to win an award like that, especially coming at the time it did," said McGovern.

"To win any prize with George Best's name on it is a real honour and when I heard about the other Northern Ireland footballers who won it previously it made it even more special."

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