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Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards: Good times never seemed so good after Northern Ireland treble joy

By Steven Beacom

The Northern Ireland football team enjoyed treble glory at the 2015 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards with the players and manager Michael O'Neill rewarded for their outstanding success.

Last year, O'Neill's Northern Ireland team created history by becoming the first side from this country to qualify for the European Championship finals and in France in the summer will follow in the footsteps of the legendary 1958, 1982 and 1986 World Cup sides by playing in a major championships.

It was hardly surprising then that O'Neill picked up the Coach/Manager of the Year prize at the Belfast Telegraph Awards.

O'Neill and his squad were judged to be the Team of the Year and there was an individual honour for captain Steven Davis, who won the Malcolm Brodie Player of the Year trophy.

Southampton midfielder Davis scored twice in a 3-1 victory over Greece at Windsor Park in October to secure qualification for the Euro 2016 finals.

After his first goal, which set the home team on their way to France, Davis pointed to the sky in tribute to his late mum and biggest fan Laura, who passed away in 2008.

It was one of the most striking and heartfelt moments in sport throughout 2015.

It was fitting that the former Aston Villa, Fulham and Rangers star was the hero on the night when dreams came true because over the course of the campaign he proved to be an inspirational figure for the rest of the players on and off the pitch.

In fact, the only game out of 10 that Northern Ireland lost in Group F was when Davis was absent through injury.

He was the heartbeat of the side as they finished top of the table and they are now looking forward to the Euro finals, where they will play Poland, Ukraine and World champions Germany in the group stages.

Also on the shortlist for the Player of the Year prize was team-mate Kyle Lafferty, who scored seven times in the Euro qualifiers, hockey star Eamonn Magee and Gaelic games and netball ace Caroline O'Hanlon.

"It is fantastic to win the Malcolm Brodie Player of the Year award. It feels even more special because it is across all sports," said 31-year-old Davis, who sent a video message as he was unable to attend due to injury.

"I remember being at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards 10 years ago when I won the George Best Breakthrough prize. That night Rory McIlroy won the Young Player of the Year award.

"It is fantastic that Northern Ireland as a whole is doing so well in different sports around the world and we are so pleased that the football team could deliver for the people as well.

"Qualifying for Euro 2016 was incredible for everyone - Michael, the players and the fans. It was an emotional night that we all enjoyed and now we are looking forward to the country's first major tournament in 30 years.

"We aren't going there to make the numbers up. We are going there to make an impact and although we are in a tough group, our aim is to reach the knockout stages."

The Northern Ireland skipper's award was collected by his dad David.

Manager O'Neill also spoke about how much he and his team were relishing the finals.

He joins an illustrious list of Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham as the only men to have taken Northern Ireland to a major tournament.

"We can feel proud of achieving what we did. It provided a great lift for the country and a great lift for football here," said O'Neill, who received his Manager of the Year award from former international team-mate Neil Lennon.

"The players were magnificent. We had a great start to the campaign, winning our first three matches, and that gave us a chance to go and do something special.

"In 2015 there were some very big moments like Kyle Lafferty scoring a last-minute equaliser at home to Hungary to keep us in control of our destiny and of course the win against Greece, when Steven scored twice, is one that no Northern Ireland fan will forget.

"I'm delighted to win the Manager of the Year award and also for the squad to win the Team of the Year prize and Steven to be named Player of the Year. His performances over the campaign were fantastic and he epitomises what our team is all about.

"We will go to France with a positive frame of mind believing that we can get results. Our target is the knockout stages.

"We will have thousands of supporters in France and with their backing and the focus and ability of the players, we feel we can get points on the board."

Having a shrewd manager like O'Neill will be crucial to that aim.

As revealed by the Belfast Telegraph last year, he will sign a new four-year contract with the Irish FA. That deal will be announced in the near future.

In the meantime, the IFA and the Northern Ireland football team can savour another wonderful evening... winning three major prizes at the country's most prestigious sports awards.

Roll on Euro 2016.

Belfast Telegraph

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