Michael O’Neill admitted Northern Ireland’s Tuesday night celebrations were subdued as they discovered they had advanced to the last 16 at Euro 2016 despite losing to Germany in Paris.
News of Turkey’s 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, a result which ensured Northern Ireland’s spot in the knockout phase, reached O’Neill’s squad prior to their flight back to Lyon, which they made wearily after being given the runaround by a German team that had 71 per cent of possession.
It’s the players’ day off so the last thing they need to see is me, I’ve hardly seen themMichael O’Neill
The slender 1-0 defeat was enough to see them through, though, and O’Neill was pleased that they did not face a nervous wait on Wednesday night to discover their fate.
“We’re delighted that we’re not going home,” he said.
“After the players put so much in to the game it would have been an interesting 24 hours watching the two groups today coming to a conclusion. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait that long.
“We knew of our fate even before we boarded the plane in Paris, it was a little bit unusual because we were following it on mobile phones but it was a good feeling.
“The players were pretty drained after the game so it wasn’t euphoric. We were quietly hopeful and confident that we would get the opportunity and that proved to be the case.”
Several players spoke of their exhaustion after chasing the shadows of Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze around the Parc des Princes and O’Neill rewarded them with some free time.
“It’s the players’ day off so the last thing they need to see is me, I’ve hardly seen them,” he revealed.
“They’re in their little bit of the hotel, they were around the pool, they’ve enjoyed a down-day. They’ve worked very hard. The base has been fantastic, we couldn’t have chosen anywhere better than where we are.
“The players have enjoyed the time we’ve spent together. They were asking for a day off, we relented, we did have something in the schedule but mentally they needed the day off and they will be ready to start work again tomorrow.”
Congratulations have flooded in for O’Neill’s squad and that began with four-time major winner Rory McIlroy’s post-match presence in the dressing room in a George Best t-shirt.
O’Neill has been inundated with messages since qualification was sealed too, receiving so many he apologised to those he has yet to reply to.
“There’s been a lot of texts, a lot of messages that have come in, they’re all very nice to receive,” O’Neill said.
“It’s nice that so many people are interested in Northern Ireland, that we’re making an impact here.
“It was nice for Rory to come in. He made a special effort to get to that game and I think that’s appreciated by the players. They were glad to see him, there were a number of selfies being taken in the dressing room.
“We’ve had great support from everyone in Northern Ireland, be it high-profile sportsmen or the regular fan on the street and hopefully that can continue.”