Irish eyes smiling at euro spots

Steven Davis of Northern Ireland celebrating after scoring his second goal against Greece at Windsor Park in Belfast. It is the first time the team have qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
Steven Davis of Northern Ireland celebrating after scoring his second goal against Greece at Windsor Park in Belfast. It is the first time the team have qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Shane Long gives the home supporters plenty to shout about as his goal against Germany earns a shock 1-0 victory that guarantees Ireland at least a play-off spot for Euro 2016.
Shane Long gives the home supporters plenty to shout about as his goal against Germany earns a shock 1-0 victory that guarantees Ireland at least a play-off spot for Euro 2016.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Ulstermen make history by nailing first appearance in C'ship

BELFAST • The posters that adorned Windsor Park showed Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis flanked by George Best and Pat Jennings, with a slogan that read: "Legends come from legends".

How the skipper and his side wrote themselves into Northern Ireland folklore on Thursday.

In front of a 12,000 capacity crowd that included Northern Irish golf star Rory McIlroy, Davis' brace inspired a 3-1 win over Greece. The result guaranteed the Irish their first appearance at the European Championship and their first berth in a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

That their other scorer was Josh Magennis only added to their fairy tale, which was not to be blemished by Christos Aravidis' late consolation for the Greeks.

Kilmarnock's Magennis is a one-time goalkeeper who played in the absence of suspended leading scorer Kyle Lafferty.

It was Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill's latest demonstration in moulding a winning unit from disparate parts.

The team had never qualified for the European Championship in 13 previous attempts, with even the late Manchester United legend Best unable to lead his side to the continent's international showpiece.

But O'Neill made history with an unheralded squad that comprised of players drawn from minnows like Hamilton, Melbourne City, Fleetwood, Luton, Ross County and Kilmarnock. And he did so with one game to spare - next week's final qualifier against Finland.

Only Iceland have also managed to book a berth in France from the fifth of six seeded qualifying pots.

"I'm very proud of what we've achieved," said O'Neill.

"This is certainly the highest point of my career, either as a player or a manager."

Northern Ireland's first and deputy first ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, took to Twitter to congratulate the team.

But it could yet get better. O'Neill pledged that his side would make a stir in France, even if they are 250-1 outsiders to win the tournament.

"We're going to go and try to make an impact," the 46-year-old said of his team - up to 35th in the Fifa world rankings from 88th during his tenure.

"I genuinely believe, fitness and availability willing, we can go there with a real optimism."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline 'Irish eyes smiling at euro spots'. Print Edition | Subscribe