ATHENS (Reuters) – Northern Ireland qualified for next year’s European Championship for the first time in emphatic style with a deserved 3-1 home victory over Greece at a raucous Windsor Park on Thursday.
Captain Steven Davis scored twice, sliding home the opener after a well-worked move 10 minutes before halftime, and heading in a corner after Josh Magennis made it 2-0 after the break.
Michael O’Neill’s side are guaranteed a place at Euro 2016 in France as one of the top-two finishers in Group F and have reached their first a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
“The players were outstanding. Right through the team, magnificent, It’s a privilege to be here, I’m proud to stand here as their manager,” said O’Neill.
“How have we done it? I’m not really sure! The players deserve the ultimate credit. We have confidence and belief which comes from winning games. This shows the potential of this team and of football in Northern Ireland.”
A swashbuckling sixth victory in nine games for the Irish took them to 20 points ahead of Romania on 17 and Hungary with 16, leaving the latter to fight it out for the remaining place.
The Irish players danced around the pitch draped in flags as they celebrated victory over the 2004 European champions who are bottom of the group without a win after a dreadful campaign.
Greece midfielder Christos Aravidis did prod home a late consolation for the visitors from Vasilis Torosidis’ right-wing cross three minutes from time but that was scant consolation.
For the Greeks, who have only three points, the appointment of a permanent new coach in place of interim boss Kostas Tsanas, who managed the under-21 team, cannot come sooner.
Needing two points from their last two games, the Irish made the early running but Greece might gone ahead after 15 minutes but for the quick reflexes of home keeper Michael McGovern, who saved Alexandros Tziolis’ header from Panagiotis Kone’s corner.
Northern Ireland’s first clear sight of goal came in the 24th when Magennis’ close-range effort on the turn was blocked by Greece centre back Vangelis Moras’ last ditch intervention.
Just over 10 minutes later the hosts broke the deadlock with a beautifully crafted three-man move, typical of the sort of attractive football underpinning their successful campaign.
Corry Evans’ delicious through ball picked out Stuart Dallas’ perfectly-timed run into the box, with the latter squaring a pass for Davis to find the net from close range.
The hosts were reminded of Greece’s counter-attacking threat when Kostas Mitroglou hit the post on the stroke of halftime before the Irish to put the match to bed five minutes into the second period when Magennis headed in Oliver Norwood’s corner.
Davis then put further gloss on a glorious night for the hosts two minutes before the hour mark, sending a bullet header past keeper Orestis Karnezis after Chris Brunt’s corner was headed into his path by Antonis Samaris.
An impotent Greece finally put a passing move together in the final third with three minutes left which resulted in a goal as Aravidis slid home Torosidis’s low cross after the full back surged on to Antonis Samaris’ through ball.
But that late goal from the visitors was a mere footnote as the jubilant Irish players went on to celebrate into the night with the boisterous Belfast crowd amid scenes of joy.
(By Graham Wood, Editing by Ken Ferris)