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Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards: Northern Ireland score big after a truly glorious 2016

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill and the Northern Ireland footballers have more success to celebrate after collecting FOUR big prizes at last night's Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.

Following their Euro 2016 heroics and the fine form they showed post-France in World Cup qualifiers, the Northern Ireland players were named Team of the Year, goalkeeper Michael McGovern won the coveted George Best Breakthrough award, O'Neill collected the Manager of the Year trophy and Gareth McAuley's headed goal during the 2-0 victory over Ukraine in Lyon was voted Northern Ireland's favourite sporting moment of 2016.

All those awards illustrated what a massive impact the national football team had last year.

Few pundits expected Northern Ireland to go beyond the group stages in the Euros but O'Neill's men delivered the goods by reaching the last 16 where they were eliminated in unfortunate circumstances against Wales when the unlucky McAuley scored an own goal in a 1-0 loss.

The goal that went in at the right end for the big defender is now the stuff of legend; that leap at the far post to connect with Oliver Norwood's cross and powering the ball into the net for the nation's first ever goal in the European Championship finals.

It inspired the side to record their first ever win in the glamour stages of the tournament, with Niall McGinn's late strike sealing the 2-0 triumph that saw O'Neill's men labelled 'Kings of Lyon'.

Clearly the people of Northern Ireland will never tire of seeing or talking about McAuley's goal as it was voted the best sporting moment of the year by Belfast Telegraph readers.

"Given all the amazing sporting moments Northern Ireland enjoyed in 2016, I am so proud that my goal was voted the favourite one. It means a great deal," said McAuley.

Norwich goalkeeper McGovern was delighted to win the George Best Breakthrough prize, following in the footsteps of local sporting heroes such as Rory McIlroy and Michael Conlan as well as many of his international team-mates including Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, McGinn and Conor McLaughlin.

Entering 2016, McGovern was regarded as a fine goalkeeper for Northern Ireland but moved to a new level at the Euros with some superb performances, not least against World champions Germany in Paris. The Enniskillen man was magnificent, making world class save after world class save. He kept the score down to 1-0 to the Germans which was crucial to Northern Ireland's goal difference as they made it through the group stages.

It was a breathtaking breakthrough display at the highest level, earning him a move from Hamilton to Norwich, and since then he has continued to excel at international level.

"I'm so pleased to win this award, especially given who it is named after and because of all the great people who have won it before," said McGovern.

"It was fantastic to be part of the Euro 2016 finals. It really was a great summer in France for everyone, from the players to the fans, and we want more experiences like that. We have made a good start to the World Cup qualifying campaign and our plan is to reach the finals in Russia next year."

O'Neill outlined the same ambition last night in the Waterfront Hall. He was a deserving winner of the Manager/Coach of the Year prize with the squad retaining the Team of the Year title they won at the 2015 ceremony for qualifying for Euro 2016.

After four games of the World Cup campaign, O'Neill's men are in second spot behind Germany in their group. Stay in that position and a play-off to go to Russia is on the cards.

"That's our aim," said O'Neill, happy that he and his players were recognised last night.

"Euro 2016 was brilliant but we don't want that tournament to be a one-off. We want to keep moving forward and keep qualifying for major tournaments."

Our Top 10 sporting  moments of 2016

Belfast Telegraph readers were asked to vote for their favourite with Gareth McAuley's headed goal coming out on top. Here are the 10 shortlisted top sporting moments of 2016.

Gareth McAuley's Euro 2016 NI goal v Ukraine

Carl Frampton beating Leo Santa Cruz

Jonathan Rea retaining his World Superbike title

Bethany Firth's golden world record

Jason Smyth's gold at Paralympics

Michael McKillop's gold at Paralympics

Rory Best leading Ireland to victory over New Zealand

Rory McIlroy winning FedEx Cup

Tyrone lifting the Ulster Championship

Alastair Seeley breaking Robert Dunlop's NW200 record

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