Former Northern Ireland player and manager Sammy McIlroy believes a victory over world champions Germany next week would be the greatest result in the nation’s history.
Thursday night’s 2-0 win over Ukraine in Lyon means Michael O’Neill’s side will definitely qualify for the last 16 in their first European Championship if they can defeat Joachim Low’s team in Paris.
Northern Ireland progressed beyond the group stages in both the 1958 World Cup and again in the 1982 version, when Gerry Armstrong’s goal against Spain ensured they advanced.
McIlroy played at that tournament but he insists a triumph over Germany would top anything that has come before.
“We beat Spain in ‘82 to get to the second phase which was fantastic,” he said.
“But when you look at European football today and you look at the group, with Poland and Germany, they are the top two dogs in the group.
“After beating Ukraine, if we can beat Germany, I think that will be the biggest achievement ever for a Northern Ireland side.”
McIlroy, who was speaking on behalf of Vauxhall, Northern Ireland’s team sponsor, was at the fanzone in Belfast to witness the scenes which followed goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn at the Stade de Lyon.
And the 61-year-old thinks O’Neill’s squad have already achieved feats which will ensure they are remembered in the country for years to come.
“They still talk about what happened in the 80s and they will talk about these players now,” McIlroy added.
“These players are heroes after doing what they’ve done and deservedly so. They’ve made everyone in Northern Ireland proud again of the national team.
“A lot has to be said about Michael O’Neill and how he has turned it around.
“We’re not a little fish out of water in this group - no way after how we played last night. We’re entitled to be in this group and we’ve nothing to fear, everyone knows that.
“With a little bit of luck you never know, we could even beat Germany on the day.”
McIlroy held the post O’Neill currently occupies for three years and having experienced the pressure of international management first hand, he expressed his admiration for O’Neill’s courage to make changes from the opening defeat to Poland.
“Michael was brave enough to make five changes from the first game and it really worked,” McIlroy said.
“It gave everyone a lift, there was a little more energy in the team and it paid off. I think Ukraine were shaken by the attitude of Northern Ireland and the pressure they put them under.
“I knew right away that he was going for it, he had told his players he’s got to win this game. Okay, it was a brave decision but managers have got to make brave decisions.
“Sometimes they come off, sometimes they don’t, sometimes you get praise, sometimes you get stick, but Michael was brave enough to make changes and every one of those players that came in made a difference to the team.”
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