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Neil Lennon
"The support there today was brilliant"
 real 56k

BBC NI's Mark Sidebottom talks to Sammy McIlroy and Keith Gillespie
 real 56k

banner Saturday, 24 March, 2001, 19:19 GMT
Lennon praises NI fans
Keith Gillespie
Gillespie can't believe it after his header hits a post
Neil Lennon paid tribute to the Northern Ireland fans after he received nothing but cheers from the supporters in Saturday's World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic.

However, the Celtic midfielder was "gutted" by Northern Ireland's 1-0 defeat after what he described as a "tremendous performance".

"I'm really sorry for the lads because the efforts they put in were magnificent.

"But the support out there today from the fans was brilliant.

"That is what Northern Ireland football should be all about.

"The atmosphere today was as good as it's ever been since I've been involved with Northern Ireland," added Lennon.

The home fans sang `There's only one Neil Lennon' at the end and manager Sammy McIlroy was delighted at the response of the 10,000 crowd.

Keith Gillespie was magnificent and the fans were absolutely magnificent
  Sammy McIlroy

"The crowd were 100% behind every player, Neil Lennon included," said McIlroy.

McIlroy was "so proud" of his players.

"When we have one of the best teams in the world, kicking the ball into the stand and struggling to contain us, I can only praise my lads.

"Keith Gillespie was magnificent and the fans were absolutely magnificent.

"This is the kind of support we want because it gives the lads a lift," added McIlroy.

The manager admitted that qualification is now a huge mountain for his team to climb after their second defeat in four qualifiers.

"The result is a blow but we knew that we were in a tough group.

"I can ask for no more from the players. If we keep on playing like that, we will improve," said McIlroy.

Neil Lennon and Roman Tyce
Neil Lennon battles with Roman Tyce

Gillespie said it was great to be back on the international stage.

"I'm just a bit disappointed that we couldn't get the fans the goal that their support deserved.

"For my header that hit the post, it was a fantastic ball in and I just threw myself at it.

"An inch the other side and it would have been a goal but that's the way it goes," said Gillespie.

Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes, who was caught flat-footed for the Czechs' goal, felt just as hard done by as McIlroy.

"I'm just as disappointed that we didn't get anything out of it," he said.

"All the lads put in 100% and it was a much better performance than the last game against Norway.

"As Sammy said we just needed that bit of luck and today we didn't have it.

"Nobody let their heads go down and we got stuck in and kept going, kept going and we were unlucky not to get something out of it.

Phil Gray
Phil Gray's shot which was cleared off the line

"But if we get three points out of our next game against Bulgaria on Wednesday, then that would be better than a draw here and a draw there."

Czech coach Jozef Chovanec claimed he was not surprised by the Northern Ireland's stirring display.

He added that McIlroy's side could yet qualify even though they have four points from their four games.

"We knew it would be difficult and we were playing against a team which had taken a point off Denmark the last time," he said.

"We were not much better than our hosts, but that's football and sometimes it happens that not every team can meet expectations.

"Some of the Irish players showed great skill and they caused us certain problems.

"If the Irish play the same way as they did against us and as they did against Denmark, then they still have a big chance."

McIlroy reported one or two injury niggles ahead of Monday's flight to Sofia and Gillespie has a calf problem and Jim Magilton and Danny Griffin have minor thigh injuries.

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See also:

24 Mar 01 |  World Cup 2002
Brave Irish beaten by Czechs
24 Mar 01 |  World Cup 2002
Clockwatch: N Ire 0-1 Czech Rep
24 Mar 01 |  World Cup 2002
World Cup round-up
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