Belfast Telegraph

Tired and emotional heroes proud of their place in history books

By Steven Beacom

It was the morning after the night before... and the heroic Northern Ireland players made their way bleary eyed from the Culloden Hotel on to the team coach.

Destination: The George Best City Airport, named after the country's greatest footballer who never got the chance to show off his spectacular skills in a major tournament.

Like other late greats such as Danny Blanchflower, Bertie Peacock and Alan McDonald, Bestie will no doubt be at the Euro 2016 finals in spirit.

As Michael O'Neill's heroic players trooped into the departure lounge in their Irish FA tracksuits with smiles on their faces, it was clear they had toasted their stunning success through the night.

It was also evident that some had celebrated more than others. They were entitled.

After all Northern Ireland don't qualify for the European Championship finals every day now, do they?

The unforgettable 3-1 victory over Greece on Thursday night made the dream become reality.

Once on the charter flight bound for Helsinki, ahead of tomorrow's final Group F game away to Finland, some players went back to dreaming again as the reality of pulling an all nighter hit home.

Exhausted, sleep, although never comfortable in mid air, was the order of the day.

Not for the livewire Kyle Lafferty though. Being the life and soul he didn't want the party to end, wandering up and down the aisle of the plane seeking fun wherever he could find it, be that with tired team-mates or the media.

As the flight landed in the Finnish capital, O'Neill's team came alive waking up to the fact that they had created sporting history to become the first Northern Ireland side to qualify for the Euro finals.

Experienced stars Steven Davis, Chris Baird, Roy Carroll and Aaron Hughes shared jokes with each other. In their long international careers they had suffered more pain than joy. Until now.

In Helsinki airport, captain Steven Davis told me: "It was a great night...a truly great night." Still in ecstatic mood from his two goals, which were the inspiration behind the win over Greece, Davis was also delighted to have received a 10 out of 10 rating for his performance in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph. "First time for everything," he said with a beaming grin.

With luggage collected, passport control negotiated and photographs taken with Northern Ireland fans arriving on other flights for the game, it was off to the hotel for the nation's newest sporting heroes.

Rest. Today they will work towards the Finland game. Don't expect them to take it easy then. As Gareth McAuley said: "We are top of the Group F table and want to stay there and finish the campaign with a win." Who would doubt him... or his pals feeling on top of the world right now.

Belfast Telegraph