Michael O’Neill says it’s ‘lovely’ that Northern Ireland head to Euro 2016 as group winners.
O’Neill’s men were seeded fifth when the draw was made, but the manager targeted a third-place play-off in next summer’s expanded competition.
Three wins from three at the start of the campaign meant automatic qualification quickly became the new goal and by the time that was achieved with one game to go, O’Neill was fully focused on finishing top of the pile.
No side had ever done that from pot five before – and it is unlikely to help much when the main draw takes place in December – but a 1-1 draw in Helsinki gave Northern Ireland a unique honour.
It might have been even better – Craig Cathcart’s first-half header negated by an 87th-minute equaliser – but like the jubilant travelling contingent of 2,200, O’Neill was not in the mood to be downcast.
“Of course I’m disappointed not to win the game but we’re delighted to top the group and everyone in the dressing room feels exactly the same,” he said.
“We’ve managed to top the group and it’s lovely to go to the tournament as group winners. We’ve certainly not got there by any good fortune.
“I genuinely believe we’re the best team in the group, the most effective team in the group and we finished as top goal scorers too.
“The players deserve enormous credit for that.
“You want the focus and motivation as high as possible for any game but having qualified on Thursday – and enjoyed ourselves on Thursday night – there was always going to be an element of fatigue.
“But we got what we needed.”
There was special praise for Watford defender Cathcart.
He would probably have spent this week’s crunch double header watching from the dugout had Jonny Evans not been ruled out by a hamstring injury.
As it was he played his part in the famous win over Greece and nodded home his first international goal here in Helsinki.
Northern Ireland are unusually well stocked at the heart of defence, with Paddy McNair and Aaron Hughes also around the keep Evans and Gareth McAuley on their toes.
But Cathcart has a staunch supporter in O’Neill.
“Craig is a player I’ve liked since day one, I’ve never had any hesitation putting him in the team,” he said.
“He’s been a little bit unfortunate because at times he’s had injuries which have maybe halted his progress as a starting player, but I watched him very closely in the first three or four games of the season when Jonny’s club situation was uncertain.
“I saw a player that has adapted to life in the Premier League and looks like he belongs in the Premier League.”
O’Neill does not need reminding about the scale of the upturn he has overseen over the past year, having taken 21 points in qualification compared to just seven in the 2014 World Cup group.
“That first campaign I had a lot to learn about the players and for a lot of them it was their first campaign too,” he said.
“There were a lot of harsh lessons but the good thing is they have learned them and they’ve shown that in this group.”