Belfast Telegraph

European Qualifiers: Ecstatic Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill happy to come out on top of the pile

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill felt his team got what they deserved by topping Group F following last night's 1-1 draw in Finland.

Being head of the table won't impact on Northern Ireland's seeding at the Euro 2016 finals draw in December, but there was still a sense of pride that the team that finished first rather than second on their way to France where they will be a pot four team.

O'Neill admitted his side were far from their best in Helsinki believing that tiredness, after qualifying on Thursday in Belfast with a 3-1 win over Greece, played a major part in Finland's late equaliser after Craig Cathcart had given the visitors a first-half lead.

"It is fantastic to top the group. I'm disappointed not to win the game but we certainly felt we weren't going to lose it," said O'Neill post match.

"We were very tired towards the end, you could see that in every player bar Stuart Dallas really who was phenomenal for us on the night.

"You want the focus and motivation as high as possible but with qualifying on Thursday - and enjoying ourselves on Thursday night - there was always an element on fatigue. But we got what we needed.

"We've gone through the group and only lost one game against Romania, a game we were severely weakened for with injuries.

"We've managed to top the group and it's lovely to go to the tournament as group winners. We've not got there by any good fortune.

"I genuinely believe we're the best team in the group, the most effective team in the group and we finished as top goal scorers too. The players deserve enormous credit for that."

Reflecting on how far the team has come winning 21 points in this campaign after only picking up seven in the World Cup qualifiers, O'Neill said: "It shows the margins we've talked about many times. People talk a lot about one win in 18 games at the start of my reign but the reality is I don't look at the friendlies.

"I look primarily at the competitive games and our record is fairly decent - a win percentage of about 35%, that's not too bad for a nation of our size over a couple campaigns.

"The first campaign I had a lot to learn about the players and for a lot of them it was their first campaign too.

"There were a lot of harsh lessons and the good thing is they have learned them. they've shown that in this group."

In five away games, Northern Ireland collected 10 points, which is quite a benchmark for the future.

"You need to pick up points away from home to top the group and come the tournament everyone bar France will be away from home so it is important going into the finals for us to know we can perform well away from Windsor Park," said O'Neill.

"We spent a lot of time working on the training pitch, on preparation analysis and players understanding what's needed from them whether they're starting or coming on from the bench.

"We're very focused on the training pitch. We did an awful lot of work on that. For us to be competitive we have to be a very good team without the ball and I feel we are an extremely good team without the ball now.

"Also we're improving game by game with the ball in terms of how we create chances and how we counter-attack."

Belfast Telegraph