NORTHERN Ireland are heading to their first ever European Championship after captain Steven Davis and Josh Magennis kicked off celebrations 30 years in the making at Windsor Park.
The nation has not been seen at a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup but that will all change in France next summer after an unforgettable 3-1 victory in Belfast.
Michael O’Neill’s men knew three points would be enough to make history and, when former Rangers midfielder Davis stabbed home Stuart Dallas’ 35th-minute cross, the promised land moved a mighty step closer.
But this was not a night when the Green and White Army would squeak home – this was a party. Kilmarnock forward Magennis – a converted goalkeeper who had never scored an international goal before – made it two with a deft header and the inspirational Davis nodded in his second just before the hour. The Southampton man was just a year old when Billy Bingham’s boys went to Mexico and, having described this match as the biggest of his career, he was a fitting figurehead.
So too Magennis, whose low profile and unique back story epitomise the spirit in this squad. He would not have been on the pitch had Kyle Lafferty not been suspended – nor if he had made it with the gloves at Cardiff as a teenager.
Northern Ireland’s nerveless showing was met with unfettered delight by 11,700 frenzied fans – a number curtailed by construction work but including local hero Rory McIlroy and IBF superbantamweight champion Carl Frampton.
Northern Ireland began with bristling intent and Greece were penned back by an industrious front three of Magennis, Dallas and Jamie Ward but it took a moment of vision from Corry Evans to crack things open.
The Blackburn midfielder appeared to have few options available when he spotted Dallas on the move and pinged a precision pass from left to right.
The winger took a clean first touch and sent a measured ball across goal, where Davis was on hand to fling himself forward and stab home. The reaction was electric, on and off the pitch, with Davis pointing to the skies.
Greece almost spoiled the script in first-half stoppage time, Kostas Mitroglou striking the post. But by the start of the second half French tricolours had begun to pop up in the crowd.
If it is bad luck to tempt fate, somebody forgot to tell Magennis. The 25-year-old looked to be in no position to steer home Oliver Norwood’s corner but he arched his neck and sent a looping header into the net.
It was job done – in terms of qualification at least – but Davis was not finished yet and just before the hour mark he also netted with a looping header from a corner.
Greece finally gained a consolation three minutes from time, through Christos Aravidis’ close-range finish, however this was Northern Ireland’s night, after three long decades of waiting.
N. Ireland: McGovern, McNair (McCullough 85), McAuley, Cathcart, Brunt, Corry Evans, Ward (McGinn 81), Norwood, Davis, Dallas,Magennis (Boyce 78). Subs Not Used: Carroll, Hodson, Ferguson, Reeves, Grigg, McKay, McCourt,McArdle,Mannus.
Greece: Karnezis, Torosidis, Moras, Papastathopoulos, Holebas, Tziolis, Samaris, Karelis (Mantalos 65), Kone (Pelkas 71), Aravidis, Mitroglou (Athanasiadis 76). Subs Not Used: Kapino, Kitsiou, Stafylidis, Fortounis, Vyntra, Tzanetopoulos, Tachtsidis, Vellidis.