Euro 2016: Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland make history by winning group

Finland 1 Northern Ireland 1

Rory Dollard
The Olympiastadion
Sunday 11 October 2015 23:45
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Craig Cathcart's first international goal gave Northern Ireland a first-half lead
Craig Cathcart's first international goal gave Northern Ireland a first-half lead

Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, is delighted his side will head to Euro 2016 as group winners.

O’Neill’s team were seeded fifth when the draw was made, but he targeted a third-place play-off in next summer’s expanded competition. Three wins from three at the start of the campaign meant automatic qualification quickly became the new goal and by the time that was achieved last week, O’Neill was fully focused on finishing top of the pile.

No side had ever done that from pot five before but a 1-1 draw against Finland in Helsinki gave Northern Ireland a unique honour. It might have been even better – Craig Cathcart’s first-half header cancelled out by an 87th-minute equaliser – but like the travelling contingent of 2,200 fans, O’Neill was not in the mood to be downcast.

“Of course I’m disappointed not to win the game but we’re delighted to top the group and everyone in the dressing room feels exactly the same,” he said. “We’ve managed to top the group and it’s lovely to go to the tournament as group winners. We’ve certainly not got there by any good fortune.

“I genuinely believe we’re the best team in the group, the most effective team in the group and we finished as top goal scorers too,” O’Neill added. “The players deserve enormous credit for that.

“You want the focus and motivation as high as possible for any game but having qualified on Thursday – and enjoyed ourselves on Thursday night – there was always going to be an element of fatigue. But we got what we needed.”

There was special praise for Cathcart. The Watford defender would have probably been on the bench for the final two qualifiers had Jonny Evans not been ruled out by a hamstring injury. As it was he played his part in the famous win over Greece and nodded home his first international goal in Helsinki.

“Craig is a player I’ve liked since day one, I’ve never had any hesitation putting him in the team,” O’Neill said.

“He’s been a little bit unfortunate because at times he’s had injuries which have maybe halted his progress as a starting player, but I watched him very closely in the first three or four games of the season when Jonny’s club situation was uncertain.

“I saw a player that has adapted to life in the Premier League and looks like he belongs in the Premier League.”

O’Neill does not need reminding about the scale of the upturn he has overseen over the past year, having taken 21 points in qualification compared to just seven in their 2014 World Cup group.

“That first campaign I had a lot to learn about the players and for a lot of them it was their first campaign too,” he said.

“There were a lot of harsh lessons but the good thing is they have learned them and they’ve shown that in this group.”

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