Michael O’Neill believes his Northern Ireland side fully deserve their place in the knockout stage of Euro 2016 after defying the odds to qualify from Group C.
O’Neill’s men had already made history by reaching their first ever finals in France but a gutsy 1-0 defeat at the hands of world champions Germany, coupled with Turkey’s 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, ensured they would break more new ground by progressing as one of the best third-placed sides.
At full-time in Paris they knew they had a good chance of seeing further action; three hours later Turkey’s triumph confirmed it.
They finished with three points and a neutral goal difference, an equation that could easily have been much worse had goalkeeper Michael McGovern not produced the performance of a lifetime.
The soon to be out-of-contract Hamilton stopper defied Germany with a string of wonderful saves and was the toast of the dressing room, which rewarded him with a standing ovation.
O’Neill was never content simply to be a sideshow at the tournament and is now looking forward to a tie against Wales or hosts France.
“The nature of the comp is such that small teams deserve the opportunity and we earned our right to be here,” he said.
“We’ve earned a right to be in the round of 16. I think our players deserve the opportunity, they’ve done magnificently well.
“It (the next round) becomes a cup tie, a different scenario.
“We have to hope we produce an upset in a cup-tie format.
“We’re a very small nation with a very small group of players.
“I’m immensely proud to be here.”