Gareth McAuley: Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill deserves "massive credit"
Gareth McAuley hailed the influence of manager Michael O'Neill after Northern Ireland secured their first taste of tournament football in 30 years.
McAuley, 35, is one of the only players old enough to have even a fleeting recollection of the 1986 World Cup - Northern Ireland's last appearance on the big stage.
A 3-1 win over Greece on Thursday ensured that long drought will come to an end in France next summer, with McAuley leading the celebrations draped in a red, white and blue tricolour flag at the final whistle.
The West Brom defender has done as much as anyone to usher the side over the line, playing all nine matches and contributing three goals as well as some towering displays at the back.
But he was eager to give O'Neill his due.
The former Shamrock Rovers boss inherited a side going nowhere fast in 2012 and a fifth-placed finish in qualification for the 2014 World Cup was an inauspicious start to his tenure.
But senior players, including McAuley, were convinced he was the man for the job and the rewards have followed in emphatic fashion.
"In the past we've had one off games when we've got results but to qualify for this tournament, and done it in a bit of style, that's a massive credit to Michael," he said.
"When we go out there we've got a plan, and we believe in that plan and we carry it out. It's working so far and long may it continue.
"What Michael does, away from when we're with him is incredible. The detail he puts into it, what he gives us, he just gets it spot on.
"He went through a rough time in the World Cup qualification but we've scored goals in this campaign that were lacking in the last campaign it's all come together. We've had a little bit of luck but you deserve that after all the years of grafting."
An appearance at the European Championship would cap a remarkable rise for McAuley, who played amateur football in the Irish League until the age of 23 and used to attend international games at Windsor Park as a fan.
"It's been a long, long journey for me in my career," he said.
"The chance to play in something as special as a European Championship is going to be the icing on the cake.
"To finally get the chance for something like this...it's special.
"Every time you put on the shirt you believe you can do something extra special to give something back to that crowd out there.
"I've got people who have come from England and they've never seen an atmosphere like that. It's incredible."
Northern Ireland go into their final fixture in Finland on Sunday three points clear of Romania at the Group F summit.
A point in Helsinki would see them top the section, no mean feat for a side who were drawn as fifth seeds.
"I thought we'd won the group already but Romania scored late on against Finland," said McAuley.
"That means we're going to need something in Helsinki now to win the group. We'll celebrate first but we want to win the group to put that cherry on top."