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McAuley's super goal will go down in history

By Steven Beacom

Before 2016 Northern Ireland had never played in the European Championship finals, let alone scored a goal in the tournament.

Earlier this year their first ever game in the Euro finals had ended in a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Poland in Nice.

In their second group match Michael O'Neill's men were determined to hit back and the fact was they needed to if they were going to have any chance of reaching the knockout stages in France.

Up against Ukraine in Lyon, Northern Ireland's players were inspired.

The moment of the match and the tournament for Northern Ireland came in the 49th minute when Gareth McAuley, hero to the Green and White Army, netted an historic goal that led to a vital 2-0 victory and ultimately qualification for the last 16.

When a free-kick was awarded inside Ukraine's half, midfielder Oliver Norwood floated in an inviting delivery in the direction of McAuley who was stronger than his marker, leaping to connect with the ball and head it powerfully into the net.

It was a thumping finish which left the Ukrainian goalkeeper helpless.

The stadium exploded as overjoyed Northern Ireland supporters celebrated the glorious moment.

For centre-back McAuley, who started his football career in the Irish League before going on to establish himself in the Premier League with West Brom, it was a dream come true.

"It was an incredible feeling seeing the ball hit the net," said McAuley (with Kyle Lafferty).

"We knew we had to win the game to have any chance of progressing to the next round. For me to score a goal of that importance and be the first player from Northern Ireland to score in the European Championship finals meant the world to me."

Late in the game substitute Niall McGinn hit the net to seal an unforgettable 2-0 victory, sparking crazy scenes of euphoria in that corner of France and back home in Northern Ireland.

McAuley's header had set O'Neill's men on their way to a famous victory.

That night the Northern Ireland team were the Kings of Lyon.

THE Belfast Telegraph, want YOU, our readers, to decide what was Northern Ireland's greatest sporting moment of 2016.

Over the next two weeks we will be reflecting on the 10 shortlisted moments from this year.

You can vote for your favourite at www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport in the Sports Awards section.

Here are all your options:

•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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