It’s still sinking in, isn’t it? We are going to France.
For those, like myself, who were lucky enough to be at Windsor Park last Thursday evening, it’s a night that will live long in the memory. It really was one of those ‘I was there’ experiences and, without doubt, the best atmosphere I’ve ever sampled as a Northern Ireland fan.
Yes, it was against a poor and winless Greece team, but, when it mattered most, and in front of an expectant home crowd, Michael O’Neill’s men delivered in style.
Captain fantastic Steven Davis, the axis upon which Northern Ireland spin, was a class apart, netting twice. Josh Magennis filled Kyle Lafferty’s shoes and popped up with the second goal.
East Antrim’s contingent again played a part in what will go down as one of the most magnificent moments in Northern Ireland’s sporting history.
Big Gareth McAuley provided an enduring, almost iconic image when he celebrated with the French flag draped over his shoulders after the final whistle. What a journey it has been for the Larne man who was once on loan at the Comrades from Linfield.
Ballyclare’s Paddy McNair was handed his competitive international debut against Greece and he stepped up to the mark. He was assured in possession and didn’t put a foot wrong from a defensive perspective. He was rewarded with another start in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Finland, a result which clinched top spot in Group F.
Craig Cathcart, who had slotted in for the injured Jonny Evans against Greece, scored his first international goal in Helsinki with a glancing header. The Greenisland Boys product is performing well in the Premier League with Watford and has done his chances of playing a big part in next summer’s finals no harm at all.
Corry Evans’ displays for his country often go under the radar but the Blackburn Rovers midfielder’s relentless work ethic was there for all to see against Greece. His defence-splitting pass which found Stuart Dallas who picked out Davis for the crucial opener was moment of real class.
Northern Ireland have achieved what for decades felt like the impossible dream. We’ve all had that pinch yourself moment and not many neutrals will give us a chance in France. But that same pride, passion and belief that propelled us to the Euros will help the team and us fans focus on creating even more magical memories.