Players have given O'Neill hard choices to make - Davis
THE celebrations after qualifying and topping Group G won’t be the only cause of headaches for Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, according to captain Steven Davis.
The Southampton midfielder is one of the certainties for the team when fit, but he believes the competition for places has increased significantly: “A big positive of the campaign is that we have so many players, any of the ones who have come in have stepped up to the plate.
“We'll obviously have games in between [going to France] as well and it's important everyone does well for their clubs and stays in good shape. It's still a long way to go, but now we can look forward to it.
“We've got a core group of players and there will be one or two who come into Michael's thinking, but now everyone has to go back to their clubs, hopefully do well and make sure they're sharp whenever the games come around and make sure that each and every one of us gets on that plane, which we're desperate to do.”
Whatever happens next summer, Davis said this qualifying group has created unforgettable memories: “We'll never forget the times we've had in this campaign, or the bond we've had - it's been one of the biggest things in this squad, the togetherness and team spirit.
“That doesn't just apply to the ones who have played regularly, everyone has played their part and that's carried us a long way, but we've had to show quality, discipline and we have had to throw everything into the mix to get us to where we are now.”
The Ballymena man also paid tribute to the supporters, 2,200 of whom travelled out to Helsinki: “I can’t speak highly enough of the fans, I've said so many times the edge they give us. It will be a spectacle in France to see what they bring with them and they fully deserve to enjoy it too as it's been tough to watch at times.”
That last phrase certainly applied to this match, with the visitors understandably flat after the high of qualification last Thursday, as Davis acknowledged: “It was a bit of a strange game and atmosphere, but we've done what we needed to do, which was top the group. It would have been great to have won the game, but if we look at the balance of the game, a draw was probably a fair outcome.
“But at the same time we can always look back at this and say we won the group and got a result away from home. It was a strange atmosphere, the game itself. It was important for us to give a good account of ourselves, but they kept the ball well and we were a bit sloppy at times.
“We obviously put so much into the game against Greece that we lost a bit of match sharpness we've had in this campaign, but I am not going to criticise anybody we've had a hell of a campaign and we deserve to be top.”
That fact is still hard to accept, as Davis himself admitted: “It shows how funny football can be, you win a couple of games and then you have this great belief and start to feel you can go out and any game you go into you can win, so it's important we keep this momentum now.
“We've got there, and in many ways the hard work's done, we want to go to France and enjoy the occasion but, at the same time, we want to give a good account of ourselves”.