Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland 3-1 Greece: Captain fantastic Steven Davis hits the double on the road to France

By Steven Beacom

Are you ready France? We are coming. Northern Ireland have qualified for the Euro 2016 finals.

Repeat: Northern Ireland have qualified for the Euro 2016 finals.

Sounds good. Almost too good to be true, but believe it. It's happening.

For the first time ever Northern Ireland have made it to the European Championship finals.

And next year for the first time since the 1986 World Cup, Northern Ireland will play in a major championships after captain fantastic Steven Davis and the goalkeeper turned goalgetter Josh Magennis netted in a stunning 3-1 victory amid a rip roaring atmosphere at Windsor Park. Among the crowd were Northern Ireland sporting greats Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton.

This group of Northern Ireland players, like those two, and magnificent manager Michael O'Neill are legends here now.

The brilliant Davis scored twice with Magennis netting in between in one of the greatest nights in Northern Ireland football history. Make that one of the greatest nights in Northern Ireland history. Period.

How far this team and manager have come.

In O'Neill's first campaign in charge, Northern Ireland won just once in 10 World Cup qualifiers. It may have been a superb victory secured against Russia, but beating Fabio Capello's side did not make up for dismal home draws against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan and humiliating defeats away to the same opposition.

Back then some fans and some IFA officials felt O'Neill was not the man for the job.

Thankfully, guided by President Jim Shaw, the 46-year-old was given an extension to his contract by the IFA and look at what he has achieved.

He's up there with Northern Ireland managerial greats Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham as the only men to have inspired the country to the finals of a major tournament.

1958, 1982, 1986 and now 2016.

This team have done our wee country proud and last night they showed what a squad effort it has been with an exceptional performance which not only guaranteed qualification for the Euro finals, but also put us in pole position to top the group. Amazing.

Minus the suspended Kyle Lafferty, Chris Baird and Conor McLaughlin plus the injured Jonny Evans, O'Neill was forced to make changes for the biggest game of his life.

With Aaron Hughes not risked due to injury, Paddy McNair came in for McLaughlin at right back while Craig Cathcart took over from Evans in central defence alongside Gareth McAuley with Chris Brunt at left back.

McNair had been earmarked for Baird's holding midfield role, which was filled by Corry Evans with captain Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood beside him in midfield.

Josh Magennis replaced Lafferty with Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward, who missed the last two games, either side of the Kilmarnock striker.

In goal was Michael McGovern, with O'Neill deciding to stick with the Enniskillen man despite an error in the 1-1 at home to Hungary last month.

It proved to be a good decision with McGovern excellent throughout starting with a sharp save on 15 minutes to deny Alexander Tziolis after a Greek corner led to panic in the home defence. Prior to that the classy Norwood had fired wide in a bright opening and after McGovern's crucial save the lively Ward flashed a header wide as Northern Ireland tried to exert some pressure in the opening quarter.

A first chance for Magennis arrived on 25 minutes, after fine work from Dallas, but the Bangor man's goalbound was shot superbly blocked by Vangelis Moras.

So close... the goal the home fans craved was not far away and what a brilliant goal it was. Corry Evans slipped a fantastic pass to the outstanding Dallas, who crossed perfectly for Davis to slide the ball into the net on 25 minutes from close range to send Windsor wild.

What a moment for the captain, such an inspirational figure on and off the pitch for this Northern Ireland side.

He scored his first goal in a couple of years for Southampton at the weekend against Chelsea and here he was netting for his country for the first time since 2013.

Talk about raising the roof...

If there was complete and utter joy then, relief poured out of every Northern Ireland fan just before the break when Brunt produced a telling block inside the box before Kostas Mitroglou hit the post with the rebound.

Fortune had favoured O'Neill's braves.

Four minutes into the second half Windsor erupted once again when that man Magennis, so popular with his team-mates, scored his first international goal.

Emotional scenes followed, when a looping header from Magennis (pictured) dropped into the net after Norwood's corner, with the big number 21 racing to the touchline to celebrate with O'Neill. The rest of the Northern Ireland team chased after him. Usain Bolt wouldn't have caught him!

Game over.

There was no way back for bottom of the table Greece.

The only question to answer was how much better could this night get?

Much. Davis delivered once more with an intelligent header on 58 minutes when a corner was cleared to him.

Touch of class from the skipper. Touch of class.

From the moment he first came on the scene with Northern Ireland, he looked a high quality performer.

How fitting to see him score twice on the night Northern Ireland returned to the big time.

Greece may have scored through Christos Aravidis in the 85th minute but nobody really noticed.

The packed 11,700 crowd were too busy celebrating and thinking about next year in France!

That's where Northern Ireland are headed.

When the referee blew the final whistle the cheer was long and loud and the post match celebrations on the pitch and in the stands were a joy to behold.

Get ready France... we are on our way.

NORTHERN IRELAND: McGovern, McNair (McCullough 85), McAuley, Cathcart, Brunt, Corry Evans, Ward McGinn 81), Norwood, Davis, Dallas, Magennis (Boyce 78).

Goals: Davis 35, Magennis 49,Davis 59.

GREECE: Karnezis, Torosidis, Moras, Papastathopoulos, Holebas, Tziolis, Samaris, Karelis (Mantalos 65), Kone (Pelkas 71), Aravidis, Mitroglou (Athanasiadis 76).

Goals: Aravidis 86.

Man of match: Steven Davis

Attendance: 11,700

Referee: Bas Nijhuis (Holland).

Belfast Telegraph