Euro 2016: Northern Ireland has qualified for the final 16
"Northern Ireland fully deserve their place in the knockout stage" says Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill believes his side fully deserve their place in the knockout stage of Euro 2016 after defying the odds to qualify from Group C.
O'Neill's men had already made history by reaching their first ever finals in France but a gutsy 1-0 defeat at the hands of world champions Germany, coupled with Turkey's 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, ensured they would break more new ground by progressing as one of the best third-placed sides.
At full-time in Paris they knew they had a good chance of seeing further action; three hours later Turkey's triumph confirmed it.
They finished with three points and a neutral goal difference, an equation that could easily have been much worse had goalkeeper Michael McGovern not produced the performance of a lifetime.
The soon to be out-of-contract Hamilton stopper defied Germany with a string of wonderful saves and was the toast of the dressing room, which rewarded him with a standing ovation.
O'Neill was never content simply to be a sideshow at the tournament and is now looking forward to a tie against Wales or hosts France.
"The nature of the comp is such that small teams deserve the opportunity and we earned our right to be here," he said.
"We've earned a right to be in the round of 16. I think our players deserve the opportunity, they've done magnificently well.
"It (the next round) becomes a cup tie, a different scenario.
"We have to hope we produce an upset in a cup-tie format.
"We're a very small nation with a very small group of players.
"I'm immensely proud to be here."
Northern Ireland under O'Neill are, first and foremost, a team who win and lose together.
They do not possess a single star player like Wales' Gareth Bale, but at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday evening they found a hero for the night.
McGovern, representing his country for only the 14th time at the age of 31, was inspired.
At times he was the sole difference between a slender defeat and a trouncing and his options for next season must suddenly have become a lot more interesting.
"Michael had a fantastic night in goal, he's had a fantastic tournament," said O'Neill.
"He didn't put a foot wrong all night. The players gave him a round of applause when he came in the dressing room and when that happens you don't really need the manager to say any more to be honest.
"It was a phenomenal performance and up there probably with the great goalkeeping performances we've had in the past from the likes of Pat Jennings, Tommy Wright, Maik Taylor.
"He's an exceptional goalkeeper."
Ulstermen do not throw around names like Jennings lightly, but this was no trifling performance from McGovern.
Arguably it was the best the tournament has seen and, with no new deal yet penned at New Douglas Park, O'Neill expects suitors to be circling this summer.
"He's out of contract. His club want to sign him but he hasn't re-signed for the club he's at," he said.
"I believe there's a number of clubs in Scotland that have interest in him and I'd be surprised if there's not clubs in England that would be interested in Michael.
"How he has progressed in the last 18 months is phenomenal.
"Hamilton is a very small club that has survived the last two years in the SPL and Michael is a big part of the reason why they did survive.
"He's worth at least 15 points a season to his club, no doubt."
Joachim Low, the highly decorated German coach, also had his say.
When it was suggested McGovern might be a new name to him, Low said: "Of course I have heard of him before, we have analysed the opponent.
"I have to compliment him. He has kept goal brilliantly and shown great reflexes.
"Three of four times he was completely alone in his goal, he put in a great effort."
Belfast Telegraph Digital