Martin O’Neill has admitted taking the Republic of Ireland to Euro 2016 “means so much” and is “one of the most special moments” of his career.
The 63-year-old celebrated two years in his job by steering the Republic past Bosnia-Herzegovina 3-1 on aggregate as a tense play-off drew to a conclusion in Dublin on Monday evening.
But O’Neill said: “I never once dared to dream about getting to France, never once because of the group that we were involved in, so that was special. The night was special as well.
“I thought the Germany night last month was just wonderful, but I think it was eclipsed tonight. The atmosphere was fantastic. These are the nights that you live for.
“That moment when the referee blows the whistle and you are in France, it is just very, very special, very special indeed.
“It’s more special because it means so much to a lot of people, naturally the players first and foremost, but to the nation as a whole, the crowd that we will bring to France – and they have graced other tournaments when we have qualified – and it is really special.
“I was speaking to Richard Keogh and they are just indescribable feelings. It’s great for some of the lads who have not made it [before] – Seamus Coleman, who is a top-class player, an absolutely top-class player – and for some of the older members, who are roughly the same age as myself.
“It certainly will be the last tournament that they are involved in, so I am just pleased for everyone.”
Ireland secured their passage courtesy of a 2-0 win on the night to send the Aviva Stadium into raptures.
They were set on their way by Jonathan Walters’ nerveless 24th-minute penalty, although Bosnia were furious at its award and with some justification as Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers harshly ruled that defender Ervin Zukanovic had handled Daryl Murphy’s cross.
But both the game and the tie remained in the balance until Walters volleyed home from Robbie Brady’s 70th-minute free-kick to cement the win.
O’Neill said: “Walters has had a tournament to remember. He has been fantastic, absolutely fantastic. We have had a number of really decent performers consistently – I think he has been exceptional.”
Walters was quick to play down his matchwinning heroics, saying everyone in the side deserves to be remembered as heroes.
There was a special word too for assistant manager Roy Keane and the role he has played in qualification.
O’Neill said: “I have had to make some big decisions for players during the natural course of management, but the biggest decision was bringing Roy Keane in and he has been absolutely phenomenal, phenomenal.
“I couldn’t be more delighted with him. He’s an iconic figure – sometimes he polarises opinion, certainly not in the dressing room – and we are all delighted with him.”
Bosnia boss Mehmed Bazdarevic was understandably disappointed by the outcome, and made his feelings over the penalty decision abundantly clear.
He said: “I don’t want to speak too much about that because it could have consequences, but the referee had a terrible night. He was the worst on the pitch.
“First of all, it’s very hard to speak about this because because we are aware of what we have lost in these two matches.
“The team did very well and had more opportunities. We tried to answer the Irish players with the correct mind of an aggressive game and we did our best.
“I’m very disappointed about the game. We lost and unfortunately, it’s very hard for me to speak about it. I feel sorry for the supporters that we are not going to France.”
O’Neill said the decision to bring Roy Keane in as his assistant had more than paid off.
“Bringing Roy Keane in is as good a decision as I’ve made in quite some time,” said O’Neill.
“He’s been absolutely enormous for us. He’s not taking too many of the accolades, but he’s been fantastic for us, for myself, the backroom staff and the players.”
O’Neill also praised the players who had made it to Euro 2016.
“I couldn’t be more proud (of the players), they’ve been absolutely fantastic right from the start (of qualifying),” he added.
“The esteem I hold these players in it couldn’t be higher.
“This is a special night. It is very, very special, it can’t be taken away from us.
“When I look back I’ll think this is a very, very proud moment.”