SLIDESHOW: Happy homecoming for O’Neill and Davis

It was an evening in which Mid and East Antrim Borough Council celebrated the achievements of two of its most famous sporting sons.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill and the team captain Steven Davis were honoured in their home town for their efforts in steering the side to their first major tournament finals for 30 years.

Steven Davis signs the visitors' book at last week's civic reception while Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill looks on. Included is Mid & East Antrim chief executive Anne Donaghy and Mayor of Mid & East Antrim Cllr Billy Ashe. INBT 47-170CS

Steven Davis signs the visitors' book at last week's civic reception while Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill looks on. Included is Mid & East Antrim chief executive Anne Donaghy and Mayor of Mid & East Antrim Cllr Billy Ashe. INBT 47-170CS

The duo attended a celebratory dinner along with Irish Football Association dignitaries. The event was hosted by the Mid and East Antrim Borough Mayor, Councillor Billy Ashe, at the Braid in Ballymena.

The Mayor said: “Mid and East Antrim Borough Council are delighted to officially recognise the achievements of the Northern Ireland team – and two of the Borough’s favourite sons - after their qualification for the UEFA Euro 2016 Finals.

“Our Borough has a strong representation in the squad, including both the manager and captain.

“We are proud of Michael and Steven as local sports figures and wish the Northern Ireland team well as they prepare for the tournament in France this coming summer.”

The evening also included a question and answer session hosted by broadcasting legend Jackie Fullerton, Michael O’Neill, Steven Davis, IFA President Jim Shaw and Mayor Billy Ashe.

Reflecting on his formative footballing years in Ballymena, O’Neill admitted that he didn’t see managing his country as “being part of the masterplan”.

He paid tribute to local footballing stalwarts Shaun McLaughlin, Arthur McClean and Alex McKee for their contribution in “shaping what I was as a player and ultimately as a manager as well”.

“It’s always nice to come back to Ballymena and see a lot of familiar faces.”

Reflecting on his team’s successful qualifying campaign for next year’s finals in France, Michael said: “The key thing was to get points on the board early on and build up a bit of momentum.

“After the win in Greece, I started to believe that the play-off was a realistic target.

“But the big game for me was the fifth one, when we beat Finland 2-1 - after that, our focus was purely on automatic qualification.”

Midfielder Davis’s stellar performances saw him named in the UEFA ‘Dream Team’ of the qualifiers but no performance stood out more than the qualification clinching victory over Greece, where he scored twice.

I don’t get that many goal but I came into that match with a bit of confidence after scoring against Chelsea (for his club Southampton) the previous week.

“It was a night where everything just seemed to click for us. It was great to be 3-0 up and to take in the atmosphere and enjoy the occasion,” he added.

Manager O’Neill is already busy preparing for next summer’s adventure, stating: “We don’t just want to go there and take part - we want to make our mark on the tournament.

“I believe we have the capability of getting out of the group and reaching the knockout stages,” added O’Neill.