Euro 2016: Northern Ireland's agonising wait ends in last-16 joy

Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland fans have filled stadiums with their 'Will Grigg's on fire' song
Euro 2016
Venue: France Date: 10 June - 10 July
Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC 5 live sports extra and BBC Radio Wales. Plus the BBC Sport website and app

It was the longest and most agonising night endured by supporters of Northern Ireland. But worth it.

Three hours after their team had been beaten 1-0 by world champions Germany at Parc des Princes, they learned they had qualified for the last 16 of Euro 2016.

The qualifying system in the new 24-team format may have been confusing, but Turkey's 2-0 win over the Czech Republic meant Northern Ireland would be one of the four best third-placed finishers.

The tournament has not yet seen the back of those thousands of jolly green supporters and their renditions of 'Will Grigg's on fire'.

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland will discover on Wednesday night whether they will face hosts France in Lyon or Group B winners Wales in Paris when the knockout stages start at the weekend.

Supporters' party goes on

Northern Ireland fans are enjoying watching their team at a first major tournament since 1986
Northern Ireland fans are enjoying watching their team at a first major tournament since 1986

Northern Ireland had not been to the finals of a major tournament for 30 years and their fans were determined to make the most of this one.

Half an hour after the final whistle, when the German supporters had long departed, it seemed none of Northern Ireland's followers had left Parc des Princes. Clearly they did not want their great Euro adventure to end.

As O'Neill acknowledged on Monday, Northern Ireland fans have won many friends in France, and as a result his boys in green have become many people's second favourite team.

"It has been a non-stop party for the Northern Ireland fans, whatever the results," former skipper Neil Lennon said.

"This tournament is a celebration of football and that is the way it should be. The support for the Northern Ireland team has been magnificent - we are here for the first time and you can see how much it means to us with the commitment the players have shown, and the fans as well, and we are not going home yet."

Northern Ireland's rollercoaster ride

There have been highs and lows in Northern Ireland's Group C campaign.

There was a sense of dejection when they fell to a disappointing opening 1-0 defeat by Poland in Nice. It was not just the result that stung, it was the display, which had fallen short of Northern Ireland's capabilities.

Five changes were made to the team to play Ukraine and what a night it was in Lyon as O'Neill's team celebrated a 2-0 win during a huge thunderstorm.

Then came the final match against Germany in Paris. Northern Ireland knew a draw would guarantee a place in the last 16, but their hard-working players were predictably outplayed.

They would have fallen to a heavier defeat had it not been for a magnificent performance by their goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

Former Northern Ireland defender John O'Neill described it as the best performance by a Northern Ireland goalkeeper since Pat Jennings at the 1986 World Cup.

McGovern made a string of brilliant saves to restrict damage to the crucial goal difference. Having shone so brightly on the big stage, the 31-year-old goalkeeper, now out of contract at Hamilton, should not be short on offers of new employment.

Joachim Low's team had 79% of the possession and 28 of the game's 30 attempts at goal.

"Germany were completely dominant - they are the world champions and they can do that to a lot of teams," added Lennon, now manager of Hibs and at the tournament as a BBC pundit.

"Michael McGovern kept the score to a respectable level and the rest of the players gave everything.

"There have been different heroes, in defence and attack. McGovern, of course, but Gareth McAuley has been a real rock at the back too.

"Conor Washington came into the attack against Ukraine and did really well when I had imagined Kyle Lafferty would be the main threat, but Kyle has had a bit of a break and could still find his feet in this tournament."

Manager O'Neill in spotlight

Michael O'Neill made five changes to his team to face Germany
Michael O'Neill made five changes to his team to face Germany

Michael O'Neill signed a new four-year contract as Northern Ireland manager earlier this year, but that has not prevented speculation about what a good tournament would do for his future prospects.

The 46-year-old, whose only previous managerial experience had been at Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers, must take credit for lifting players after that initial Polish setback.

Making five changes to the team was a bold move, although he argued it had not been that radical.

The players chosen did not let him or Northern Ireland down, and the Kings of Lyon headlines were richly deserved.

The manager has handled all his media commitments with patience and a sprinkling of humour, and has used his limited resources effectively.

This week, O'Neill said that if the offer of a club job came along, he would evaluate it. It would not be surprising if he gets something to mull over sooner rather than later.

Northern Ireland were in the fifth pot of seeds when the qualifying draw was made in February 2014. Against the odds, they won that group and now they are in the last 16 in France.

Neil Lennon sums up how far his former Northern Ireland team-mate O'Neill has taken his country.

"We have got a population of 1.5 million, so just to be here was a remarkable achievement. But to be in the last 16 is beyond all expectations, even mine."

Now for the knockout matches

Third placed teams table
The four best third-placed teams qualify. Since Turkey and Albania have played all their games and have an inferior record to Northern Ireland, Michael O'Neill's side are guaranteed a place in the knockout phase

O'Neill will now plan for Northern Ireland's next challenge, although he will not know who they play until Wednesday's final group fixtures.

It will most likely be hosts France in Lyon on Sunday. However, it is possible they will play Wales in an all-UK match in Paris on Saturday.

"Chris Coleman has done a magnificent job with Wales," O'Neill said.

"If I was picking a team I thought we had a better chance against I would say Wales, but we'll see who comes out after the final group games.

"One thing I can assure the supporters is that we will be ready to play whether it's Saturday or Sunday."

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