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Dublin: 7°C Tuesday 9 March 2021

'It’s the nights that you live for' - O'Neill thrilled for 'fantastic bunch of players' and 'exceptional' Walters

Ireland’s manager also singled out right-hand man Roy Keane for his contribution throughout the campaign.

O'Neill salutes the fans.
O'Neill salutes the fans.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

AN OVERWHELMING SENSE of pride shone through as Martin O’Neil sat at the top table of the media room deep in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium tonight.

On his maiden voyage in international football, the Derryman has managed to successfully guide Ireland to the European Championship finals for only the third time.

After picking up one point from two games against nearest Group D rivals Scotland, many felt the team’s chances of even finishing in the play-off place were slim as recently as June.

Those doubters have been proved wrong, however, as two goals from Jon Walters handed the Boys in Green a 3-1 aggregate scoreline over Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Aviva Stadium.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” O’Neill said in his post-match press conference. “They are a fantastic bunch of players who wanted to play for their country, which is very important.

“There seems to be some sort of talk that players find it a chore to come to play for their country. I’ve not experienced that in my two years here and certainly not since the qualification started.

The players do want to play and I think they have shown that over the campaign. They have given everything and I don’t think they had anything left to give.

“It isn’t (about me). The game is about players and I am absolutely delighted for myself naturally, rather selfishly, but I’m thrilled for the players because they have put their heart and soul into the games.

“After the Scotland game here, which we probably should have won, it put us on the back foot with four games left but it was still in our hands.

“We sat in this very room and said it was still in our hands. It meant we had to go and win the two games in quick succession, Gibraltar and Georgia, and probably win one of the last two games. It was a tall order but it was never beyond them.

“Shane Long’s goal against Germany gave us the opportunity to play Bosnia and we never gave up.

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He added: “I never once dared to dream about getting to France because of the group we were involved in.

“So that was special. I thought the Germany night last month was just wonderful but that was eclipsed tonight. It’s the nights that you live for.

I was actually told to go out on the field and applaud the crowd but I didn’t hesitate because I wanted to do it and it was a nice feeling.”

Match-winner Walters has been immense throughout the whole campaign and it was fitting that his two strikes, one from the penalty spot, guaranteed Ireland’s place at Euro 2016.

“Walters has had a qualification campaign to remember,” said the Ireland boss. “He has been absolutely fantastic and we have had a number of really decent performers consistently. But I think he has been exceptional.”

Martin O'Neill embraces Roy Keane at the final whistle O'Neill and Keane share a hug. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

O’Neill was also quick to praise the contribution of assistant manager Roy Keane and the rest of his backroom staff.

“I had to make some big decisions in the natural course of management but the biggest decision was bringing Roy Keane in and he has been absolutely phenomenal.

I couldn’t be more delighted with him. He is an iconic figure here. Sometimes he polarises opinion but certainly not in the dressing room and we are all delighted with him.

“Passing down, there was bringing in Seamus McDonagh, Steve Walford and Steve Guppy. I couldn’t be more pleased and there is a great spirit among the players.

“I know everybody talks about it but I think that spirit has been so strong at times that has carried us through matches when we might have lacked the occasional piece of absolute genius.

“They have been great, they deserve to go and I will be delighted to be with them.”

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Ben Blake

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