Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill would like a crack at British rivals Wales after his side reached the last 16.
A 1-0 defeat to world champions Germany in Paris left the Northern Irish in the driving seat to qualify third out of Group C behind Germany and Poland, and their progress was confirmed when Turkey beat Czech Republic 2-0 in Group D later in the evening.
While Turkey retain hope of reaching the last 16 as one of the four best third-placed sides, Northern Ireland can look forward to a match against Wales in Paris on Saturday or hosts France in Lyon on Sunday.
“It’s surreal,” said O’Neil. “I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet but it’s a fantastic achievement.
“We knew the group would be difficult. What we saw tonight was a team that refused to be beaten by a big margin and did everything possible to stay in the game. ”
Over the three games we deserve to be in the last 16. What we went through tonight will prepare us for anything in the next round and our players will be ready for whoever.”
“If I was picking a team I thought we had a better chance against I would say Wales, but we’ll see who comes out after the final group games on Wednesday.”
Northern Ireland’s players gave goalkeeper Michael McGovern a standing ovation in the dressing room after his magnificent display had raised his side’s prospects of a place in the last 16.
Michael O’Neill’s men were left unsure of their fate at the final whistle of their 1-0 defeat by Germany but they left the Parc des Princes with three points to their name and a neutral goal difference that could be enough to take them forward.
That equation could easily have been four or five goals worse were it not for the defiant brilliance of McGovern, an unheralded 31-year-old who is currently out of contract at Hamilton.
He made a succession of brave and intelligent stops, repelling everything but one Mario Gomez effort.
“Michael had a fantastic night in goal, he’s had a fantastic tournament,” said O’Neill.
“He didn’t put a foot wrong all night. The players gave him a round of applause when he came in the dressing room and when that happens you don’t really need the manager to say any more to be honest.
“It was a phenomenal performance and up there probably with the great goalkeeping performances we’ve had in the past from the likes of Pat Jennings, Tommy Wright, Maik Taylor.
“He’s an exceptional goalkeeper.”
Ulstermen do not throw around names like Jennings lightly, but this was no trifling performance from McGovern.
Arguably it was the best the tournament has seen and, with no new deal yet penned at New Douglas Park, O’Neill expects suitors to be circling this summer.
“He’s out of contract. His club want to sign him but he hasn’t re-signed for the club he’s at,” he said.
“I believe there’s a number of clubs in Scotland that have interest in him and I’d be surprised if there’s not clubs in England that would be interested in Michael.”How he has progressed in the last 18 months is phenomenal.
“Hamilton is a very small club that has survived the last two years in the SPL and Michael is a big part of the reason why they did survive.”He’s worth at least 15 points a season to his club, no doubt.”
O’Neill had hoped for four points to qualify from a difficult section but has seen enough over the last 270 minutes to believe his charges have played a good enough part to continue their underdog story.
“Hopefully that’s the case…our fans are not going home regardless by the sounds of it out there,” he said as loud chants rang through the Paris night.
“Ideally we would have hoped to guarantee a place in the round of 16 but it was always going to be difficult given the nature of the teams in our group.
“If we were going to lose this game that’s the best defeat we could have had. We did remarkably well to stay in the game – you’re never going to play Germany, the world champions, and not have that kind of night.”