There were scenes of wild celebration in Belfast on Thursday night, as Northern Ireland clinched their place in a first major Finals since 1986.
Michael O’Neill’s side knew a win against Greece at a packed Windsor Park would clinch their place at Euro 2016, which comes thirty years after their last tournament appearance in the Mexico World Cup Finals. And a brace from Southampton’s Steven Davis and a goal from Kilmarnock’s Josh Magennis was enough to secure a comfortable 3-1 win over the Euro 2004 winners.
Although UEFA have made it easier to qualify for the Finals in France next year after expanding the number of teams involved, this is a remarkable achievement for a team who were pulled out of Pot Five in the draw. It is also the first time they have qualified for a European Championships, and is a far cry from their last attempt when they won just two of their 10 fixtures.
The second automatic qualification place in Group F remains up for grabs, after Romania were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Finland. The hosts actually needed a late Ovidiu Hoban equaliser to take a point, and their failure to collect maximum points means Hungary are now just a point behind after they came from behind to beat the Faroe Islands by a narrow two goals to one.
There was also reason to be cheerful for the Republic of Ireland, who shook world champions Germany with a 1-0 win in Dublin. Shane Long, another Southampton player, came off the bench to score a goal which is sure to be remembered for years to come, and more importantly one which guarantees at least a playoff place after Poland drew with Scotland 2-2.
This result means there is now no chance of Gordon Strachan’s side making the Finals next year. It looked good for the home side as they fought back from a goal down to take a 2-1 lead, but Robert Lewandowski – is there a hotter striker in the world right now? – grabbed a late leveller to break Scots hearts and extend their absence from a major tournament to at least 20 years.
Martin O’Neill’s side will now travel to Warsaw for their final game on Sunday knowing that a win against the second-placed Poles could even see them top Group D, although they would have to clinch a victory and hope Germany fail to do the same against a Georgia side who are second-bottom of the standings having lost six and won just three of their nine matches.
Elsewhere, Portugal made certain of their place in the Finals when a Joao Moutinho goal was enough to beat Denmark 1-0 in Braga. In the group containing the lowest number of nations, Group I, the Euro 92 winners have now completed their programme will miss out next summer if Albania, who lost at home to Serbia, bear bottom placed Armenia on Sunday evening.