Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland to Euro 2016: Green and white army are marching on to promised land

By Matt Gault

Get ready France — Northern Ireland are coming! Michael O’Neill’s Green and White Army produced an heroic display to sweep Greece aside 3-1 at Windsor Park and qualify for Euro 2016 in spectacular fashion.

Two goals from captain Steven Davis either side of Josh Magennis’ first-ever international strike clinched a memorable victory on a night the fans will never forget. Whether you were inside a bouncing Windsor, a bar in Belfast city centre, or just celebrating in your living room, this was something special to behold.

Not surprisingly, the Northern Ireland fans were in buoyant form after the game, reflecting on a night that surely eclipses 2005’s 1-0 win over England.

Simon McIntyre (23), was inside the stadium to soak up the pandemonium and loved every minute of it, singling two-goal hero Davis out for particular praise.

“With so many players missing we needed the experienced men to step up and none more so than the skipper,” said Simon. “He said before the game it was the biggest of his life and it’s the best I’ve ever seen him play wearing green. He dominated the midfield and chipped in with two priceless goals.”

Northern Ireland had the hopes of a nation weighing heavily on their shoulders and would have been forgiven for showing nerves, but they pressed hard from the outset and asserted their authority, a facet of their play Simon was thrilled with.

“It’s a team that’s showed no fear and they’ve reaped all the rewards,” he said.

“We’ve waited 30 years so it’s truly a once-in-a-generation thing. O’Neill has set the benchmark of how this country should look at qualifiers.

“We’re no longer whipping boys and we’ve shown Europe that this side is something special.

“It’s now important to capitalise and make sure we always give ourselves as best a chance as possible of qualification. I think with the balance of this side that we can and if we keep this team ethic going, we’ll continue to thrive.”

James McKeown (28), has been going to Northern Ireland games for most of his life and managed to harness his ecstasy enough to speak of how much this means.

“This is up there with one of the best nights I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

“I’ve been watching Northern Ireland since I was in primary school. I’ve been to some depressing games, but I’d do it all again for a night like this!”

Of course, it didn’t matter where you watched the match from — the feeling of jubilation was spread throughout the city. Conor McParland (23), was in a jam-packed Lavery’s Bar and was astonished by the noise.

“After the first goal went in I was soaked in drink,” he said. “There were pints everywhere and the atmosphere was electric, it’s tough to describe really.”

With such a momentous occasion behind them now, the future looks bright for a country who, just two years ago, faced the ignominy of a 3-2 defeat to minnows Luxembourg. There was no embarrassment last night, only euphoria and relief, but Conor believes this could be the start of something bigger.

“This can only give the country and team the belief and confidence for future campaigns. We now know we can qualify for tournaments and that is huge for us. I’ll definitely be in France next year,” he said.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this result and it’s clear to see what it means to the fans.

Forget about that week in Ibiza, next summer’s holiday kitty is being spent on tickets to France. The dream has been realised.

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