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Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill has left a real mark on the big stage this summer, says Davis

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis didn't hesitate. Still feeling emotional after Northern Ireland's exit from Euro 2016, he was asked about the future of manager Michael O'Neill.

Since O'Neill was appointed in December 2011, the boss and star midfielder have forged a close relationship. They admire each other in equal measure. It's a sure thing had the pair of them not been around over the past two years, Northern Ireland would not have been playing in France over the past fortnight.

So, to be quizzed on O'Neill entering the thoughts of club owners and chairmen in England moments after one of the most painful experiences of his footballing life - losing 1-0 to Wales in the last 16 in Paris and being knocked out of the tournament - was testing. Typically, the Southampton star didn't shirk the challenge.

He said: "There are going to be people looking at him, he's done a hell of a job with us. There's been an unbelievable progression in the last couple of years, we were close to getting into the quarter-finals here.

"I'm sure there'll be plenty of suitors thinking he's a possible candidate for a role. We'd like to keep him but I'm sure at some point he'll go on to manage a big club side."

The Northern Ireland skipper's club Southampton are currently on the lookout for a new manager. To land O'Neill they would have to pay the Irish FA £750,000 which is the buy-out clause in his four-year contract.

O'Neill is considered an outsider for that role with ex-Nice, Lyon and Lille manager Claude Puel the favourite ahead of former Ajax boss Frank de Boer to replace Ronald Koeman, who is now in charge of Everton.

"Stranger things have happened," was the reply from Davis when the O'Neill to Southampton suggestion was made.

"As a player or a manager, everyone needs an opportunity. Some of our lads are playing in the lower leagues and they've shown they're capable of playing at this standard. You need a chance and that's the same for managers. It's about somebody having the belief in Michael to give him the opportunity. I'm sure he wouldn't let them down.

"He has proved himself. In this tournament we've played against some world class players in (Robert) Lewandowski and (Gareth) Bale and I think we kept both of them relatively quiet.

"We set up against a strong German side and of course they were going to get through us. He's managed to find a system that works for us and the players we've got to give us the best opportunity to get results.

"He's been great for us and we'd like to keep him and build on this. Hopefully we can keep this momentum going into the World Cup qualifiers. It's going to be a tough group but we need to look forward, we've got to take the positives from this tournament and try to build."

On the defeat to Wales, which was down to an unfortunate Gareth McAuley own goal after Northern Ireland were on top for most of the match, Davis admitted it was extremely hard to accept.

"I don't usually get emotional coming off the pitch but I was close to tears doing a TV interview straight after the game. It shows what it meant to us. Wales knew they were in a game," said the former Rangers star.

"I was devastated, the dressing room was very quiet after the game. Everyone was emotional coming off. I think that's because it's been an unbelievable experience, one we've loved every minute of and one we didn't want to end.

"I think we gave it our all on the day, I think we were unlucky, the ball just didn't seem to drop for us in the right areas and the first goal was always going to be major, I knew it was going to be tight and it proved to be the case.

"We will look back on this tournament with so many fond memories from the scenes with the fans to winning the game against Ukraine.

"I think we can hold our heads high, we're not going to have any regrets."

Davis, who said no blame should be attached to McAuley for the defeat, led his team out to say thank you to the Northern Ireland fans long after the final whistle.

He said: "It was great to see the fans at the end and to show them our respect, there's mutual respect. Obviously we've seen what it's done back home, uniting people. We take a lot of pride in what we've achieved.

"Hopefully with the reaction back home there'll be a generation of kids who want to play for Northern Ireland. Hopefully we'll start bringing through more players, there's great pride in the shirt now.

"Everybody I've been speaking to back home has been saying the whole country's going football crazy. That's fantastic."

Belfast Telegraph