Scoring the goal which sealed Northern Ireland’s first ever win at a European Championship finals was “the best moment” of winger Niall McGinn’s life.
The 28-year-old substitute slotted home late on against Ukraine in Lyon in a 2-0 victory to spark scenes of relief and delight in the stands, on the pitch and on the bench.
It was the first triumph Northern Ireland had recorded at a major tournament in 34 years and could yet be enough to see them progress to the last 16 in France, even if they lose to Germany in Paris next Tuesday.
For McGinn, whose first international goal came in Portugal on a night when Cristiano Ronaldo made his 100th cap in a 1-1 draw, it was an event that eclipsed everything he had previously experienced.
“I think that’s going to be the best moment of my life, I scored on the European stage and there were millions watching around the world,” he said.
“To score against Ronaldo on his 100th cap was obviously a special moment, and the first goal is always special, but to score in a major tournament – I don’t think anything can top that.”
Aberdeen’s McGinn had expressed his frustration last week at how a change of formation had been detrimental to him due to Michael O’Neill deploying wing-backs rather than wingers. If McGinn were to have an impact in France, he believed it would have to be from the bench, and so it proved as he swept home in stoppage time after Stuart Dallas’ original effort had been saved.
It was McGinn’s introduction from the bench in Hungary in their first qualifier that turned the tide as he scored one and made another in a 2-1 come-from-behind victory, and the role of super-sub is not one he is averse to.
“If it keeps working, why not,” he replied.
“I’ll be over the moon with it. No, for me personally I was just delighted to get on the pitch and play some minutes. I was disappointed not to get on against Poland but I’ve worked hard behind the scenes and I’ve kept my head right.
“The manager, management team, and players have all come up to me and said, ‘Well done for biding your time, you just got rewarded by coming on and scoring like that’.”
As Gareth McAuley had done when he opened the scoring early in the second half, McGinn darted to the far corner at the Stade de Lyon to celebrate in front of a travelling support greater than the current capacity of Belfast’s Windsor Park.
He did afford himself a glance back at the linesman, though, just to check there was not a flag that would halt his joy.
“A defender slipped and I hoped I wasn’t offside, I just kept running, and I heard no whistle, so I was delighted obviously,” added McGinn.
“Even just sitting on the bench, seeing the support, you want to be part of it, want to get on the pitch, get some game-time.
“For me to score on top of that was unbelievable, and to celebrate in front of our fans was incredible.
“It was perfect that both goals came in front of the fans, it repaid the faith that the fans have shown us in the tournament so far.”