Belfast Telegraph

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Michael's national heroes can hold their heads high

After an emotional exit in Paris, Northern Ireland must now dare to dream about World Cup glory

By Steven Beacom

They dared to dream. And we were all swept away with them in a footballing fairytale that will never be forgotten.

Northern Ireland had the World Cup heroes of 1958, 1982 and 1986.

Now we have the class of 2016 - in every sense.

The Northern Ireland players haven't just done their nation proud on the pitch with their commitment, passion, desire, effort and ability, they have shone off it too.

Honest and modest in interviews, generous with their time and loving being involved in the European Championship finals for the first time in the country's history, Team Northern Ireland will return to Belfast today.

They do so as national heroes.

Michael O'Neill's men may be out of Euro 2016 but they will forever be in our hearts for three weeks in June, from the moment they set foot on French soil until their departure home.

Reaching the promised land of big tournament football was magical, but the manager and his side wanted more than that.

They didn't want to sit quietly in the corner at the French party.

They wanted to make a noise and with the inspiration of the Northern Ireland supporters - the most vociferous fans at the tournament - O'Neill's side did just that.

The opening night loss against Poland in Nice may have disappointed, but the response to defeat Ukraine 2-0 in Lyon a few days later was magnificent as was the rearguard action from goalkeeper Michael McGovern in particular to limit rampant World champions Germany to a 1-0 victory.

Those results in Group C were enough to take Northern Ireland into the knockout stages, far exceeding the expectations of most apart from O'Neill and his players who had the belief that, at the very least, they could progress as one of the best third-placed sides.

On Saturday in Paris, exactly 34 years on from Northern Ireland famously beating Spain in the 1982 World Cup, they took on Wales in the last 16 and for the first hour were the superior team.

Put that down to O'Neill's excellent tactics when he outwitted his opposite number by matching Chris Coleman's 3-5-2 formation. And also give credit to how the Northern Ireland manager's boys carried out his plans against the boyos.

Previously in the tournament, Gareth Bale had been unstoppable, scoring in his side's three group games, but for the opening two thirds of the weekend contest he hardly got a kick.

Northern Ireland were the more dangerous in that period with Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward both testing Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.

Captain Steven Davis was making the side tick, like only he can, Corry Evans was pressing the play like his life depended on it and stifling Aaron Ramsey while at the back the towering trio of Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans were untroubled.

Evans, as he has been throughout the finals, was imperious in the way he dealt with Real Madrid's superstar.

Northern Ireland needed to score when they were on top. They didn't and eventually that came back to haunt them.

With 75 minutes gone, Ramsey found Bale in space on the left and his wicked cross was turned into his own net by McAuley. The big defender had to go for the ball with Hal Robson-Kanu ready to tap it in behind him.

So unlucky. McAuley, such a major influence on the side, didn't deserve that.

When the final whistle blew, as the Welsh players celebrated, their opponents fell to the turf with tears in their eyes.

The dream was over. It was time to wake up.

Northern Ireland, the better team on the day, had been beaten. Football can be such a cruel mistress.

As realisation kicked in among the players that their glorious Euro 2016 campaign, which started back in September 2014 with a victory in Hungary, had come to an end, the wonderful Northern Ireland supporters just kept on singing.

Retiring to their dressing room, Davis and his team-mates returned to the pitch 20 minutes later and stayed there for a similar amount of time to listen to the Green and White Army, who had remained in the Parc des Princes, and thank them for their unwavering support.

It was a touching show of togetherness illustrating what the Northern Ireland side is all about. And also what it will need moving forward.

It can't be another 30 years before our wee country play in the finals of a major tournament again. In fact, forget 20 or 10. Let's make it two years at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The chances of qualifying would be greatly improved if O'Neill is still manager and not poached by a club in England or elsewhere.

He has done a marvellous job for Northern Ireland and with him at the helm, finishing as runners-up to Germany and earning a play-off in a World Cup qualifying group containing the Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino is a distinct possibility.

While devastated, dejected and emotional after exiting in Paris, when the players look back on what they have achieved over the past 20 months, they should be boosted by that, injected with a large dose of confidence and feel there is no reason why they can't deliver once more.

One dream is over, but soon another one will begin.

Let's dare to dream again.

Belfast Telegraph