O'Neill: Next year can be even better for Northern Ireland
If you thought 2015 was good, wait until you see next year. That's the message from Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill ahead of the Euro 2016 finals.
For the first time in 30 years Northern Ireland supporters will eat their Christmas turkey in the knowledge they have a major tournament to enjoy.
Thousands will make the journey to France to roar on O'Neill's side, who qualified as table toppers, losing only one of their 10 matches.
Making their debut at the European Championships, Northern Ireland will play Poland, Ukraine and World Champions Germany, with O'Neill believing his players can reach the knockout stages.
For O'Neill this year has been the greatest of his footballing life - and over his career, he played at the highest levels in England and Scotland as well as for Northern Ireland and managed Shamrock Rovers to domestic glory and a record breaking run in Europe.
"It has been the best year. You do feel it more as a manager than as a player. The defeats are a lot harder to take as a manager than as a player, although in success there's a lot more to enjoy," said O'Neill, who was named Manager of the Year at both RTE and BBC Sports awards last weekend.
"Probably more so for me because the players have to go back to their clubs and re-focus. I've had the luxury of enjoying qualification since October and I'm planning ahead as well.
"It's been a memorable year - not just in the campaign, there have been a lot of positives, such as the emergence of some of the players.
"The award on Sunday was fantastic as well, it's great to get that level of recognition and that level of support."
O'Neill's preparations for next year are well underway. He has chosen Lyon as the team's base in France and is already analysing influential opponents his team will face in the Euro finals. He is plotting his way to further success and will use friendly games before the tournament to perfect certain tactics and formations.
"Hopefully we will deliver more of the same and even better in 2016," he said. "That has to be the aim. When we get to the finals we want to be in as strong a place as possible.
"We don't want to lose all that momentum because it's taken us a long time to get it. The friendly games in March and June are very important, to continue winning games and to see players continue to emerge because that's the only way we'll get stronger.
"I do believe we can reach the last 16 in France. I have looked closely at Poland and Ukraine, who we play in our first two games.
"From qualifying I looked at Poland's results versus Scotland and the Republic as there is a level of comparison there and Ukraine reached the finals via the play-offs.
"I think with the tournament giving four third-placed teams the opportunity to qualify, it gives us a real chance and I feel four points will put us in a strong position. It's how you get those four points, but I'm very much looking at that first game against Poland as key.
"We'll have a team that will go to the finals and give a really good account of themselves. Then we can move forward with optimism to the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, which starts in September, because we really want to do well there as well."
O'Neill tends to name 25 or 26-man squads, but for Euro 2016 he can only take 23. The Northern Ireland boss, who in addition to the 23 will bring along a few youngsters for the experience, insists he will have no problems leaving anyone at home.
"At the end of the day the players who have done amazingly well in getting us to France will be on the plane if they are fit and well. Most people could pick 18 to 20 of the players that I will be taking," said the ex-Newcastle and Dundee United midfielder.
"The other places will be based on how players are doing with their clubs."
O'Neill has confirmed that he will agree a four-year deal in the new year and that there will be stipulations written into the terms to benefit both parties.
"We're well down the line. Discussions have been very positive to date," he said. "I don't envisage everything being signed and sealed before Christmas but we haven't hit any stumbling blocks yet.
"I'm positive about it. With any contract, it's a long-term commitment, it has to be right.
"It's not a two-year deal, it will be a four-year deal. It has to be right for me first of all, and for the Association as well. It's just about making sure that both parties get what they want out of it and making sure that there's protection on both sides is key."