Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Jubilant Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill enjoys his ultimate high

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has described qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals as the greatest moment of his career.

The 46-year-old admitted he was ecstatic after seeing his team beat Greece 3-1 with a brilliant performance to make it to France with one game to spare in Group F.

While lauding every single player in green, there were special mentions for goalscorers Steven Davis and Josh Magennis on an unforgettable evening at Windsor Park.

At the final whistle O'Neill celebrated with his players, who gave him the bumps, and was proud and pleased to have his daughters Erin and Olivia on the pitch during the post match lap of honour.

It was the first time the girls and Michael's wife Bronagh had been at a game in the Euro qualifying campaign.

Asked if he had ever experienced anything better in his long career as a player and manager, O'Neill said: "No I haven't, nothing of such a personal nature. To have the honour to manage your country and go through what it takes to get here is quite something. I'm very proud of what we've achieved tonight, the highest point of my career, certainly, either as a player or a manager.

"This is a special moment. I'm lucky my wife and kids were here because they've not been since the Norway game, my first match (when Northern Ireland lost 3-0).

"I was a bit reluctant on them coming if truth be told, but it's special to share these moments with the right people.

"To see the reaction of the players is where I get the real buzz."

Northern Ireland were 3-0 up before the hour but O'Neill stated he couldn't really enjoy that winning feeling when the final whistle was blown.

"I probably should have enjoyed the second half a bit more," he said.

"The supporters were singing for me to give a wave, personally I hate that. I never wave. As soon as I stuck my thumb up the Greeks scored, so that will never, ever happen again. It's not in my make-up to be like that!"

O'Neill now joins the iconic Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham as Northern Ireland managers who have guided their teams to major tournaments.

Proud to be on that list, he also spoke of his pride in the bond between fans and the players from goalkeeper Michael McGovern (below) through to striker Magennis.

"We saw all the good things in Northern Ireland. The bond between crowd and team is really, really strong," he stated.

"That makes playing at home a very special thing for the players. We've come from an era where Northern Ireland players were criticised for not being available at certain times, but in this squad we have real togetherness and spirit.

"Aaron Hughes said it's taken him 96 games to get here and Conor McLaughlin has done it in eight. That's the harshness of international football. For those players who've been through campaign after campaign and been through loads of disappointments - and had a lot of criticism - this is their moment as much as it is mine." On the goalscorers, O'Neill said: "Steven is a magnificent captain and to score two goals was phenomenal. His performance was out of this world. It gives you an indication of the type of player and person he is. I was also delighted for Josh. He was outstanding, his desire, his presence. everything. I'm delighted he got his goal."

O'Neill stated he doesn't care right now who Northern Ireland land in the Euro finals draw in December, but did insist the team won't be going to France to make up the numbers.

"Now we can look forward to the tournament," he added. "We're not just going to go there and enjoy it. We're going to go and try to make an impact.

"I genuinely believe, fitness and availability willing, we can go there with real hope."

Before then there will be contract talks with the IFA.

O'Neill will take the team to the Euro finals and is hopeful of a positive outcome with IFA officials moving forward.

He said: "I have said all along that we would review the situation at the end of the campaign. My contract now automatically runs to the end of the tournament and chief executive Patrick Nelson, the IFA board and myself will sit down and work out the best way forward."

Last night after the match and his media duties, O'Neill went out on the town to party with his players.

"The players have told me I am not allowed to go back to the hotel. I don't know where they are going, so I will probably end up somewhere near where they are," he said.

"These are special moments to be enjoyed."

Belfast Telegraph