Belfast Telegraph

'Best fans' hail Northern Ireland players despite Euro 2016 exit

The dream has ended - but what a journey.

Ten thousand Northern Ireland fans descended on a huge open air fan zone in Belfast full of hopes that their Euro 2016 adventure would continue.

Those hopes were dashed when a cruel Gareth McAuley own goal handed Wales victory in the last 16 encounter in Paris.

But through the bitter disappointment that descended on the legions of the Green and White Army at the final whistle shone pride at the feats of their beloved team.

When the taste of defeat fades, it will be the heady memories of Northern Ireland's first major finals appearance in 30 years that will endure.

Warren Miskimmin, 43, from Bangor thought the better team lost.

"We were robbed," he insisted.

"The whole campaign has been outstanding. I was in Lyon last week for our game against Ukraine and it was amazing.

"We were the best fans at the Euros. We might not have got through, but we were still the best fans at the tournament."

For Rebecca McConnell from Annalong, Co Down it was a first experience of the electric fanzone atmosphere Belfast has witnessed for each of Northern Ireland's four games.

"I had to come to support the lads," she said.

"It was great."

Husband Mark was sure Northern Ireland deserved victory.

"We were the better team - the better team didn't win," he said.

"The second half we were all over them."

Clint Palmer from Co Fermanagh said there was a real sense of pride across Northern Ireland.

"The guys have done us proud, no matter the result," he said.

"The country has been rallying for them - it's just superb."

His friend Jonathan Graham said he was taken aback by the size of the crowd at the fanzone.

"There are so many here today - all I can see is thousands and thousands," he said. "It's amazing."

Northern Ireland's exploits in France have created some amazing scenes back home, with thousands of supporters coming together to watch the action in huge outdoor fan zones.

And so it was again on Saturday, as council playing fields in south Belfast were transformed into a little corner of Paris for the day.

Behind the main screen there was another huge TV set up just for families, so the youngest fans could secure a good view of the historic clash.

An old-school green caravan emblazoned with the words of Northern Ireland songs that had turned heads as supporters drove it through France was also parked up for the match.

A steady stream of fans posed in front of it, keen to be snapped with the now famous home-on-wheels.

Even the bins on the expansive site were green.

The fan zone was set up in just 48 hours by Belfast City Council after a clash of events forced a late switch.

A privately-run venue in Belfast's Titanic Quarter had proved hugely popular in the group stages of the tournament, with 13,000 attending some games, but the round of 16 matches were unable to be screened there as they coincided with a weekend music festival.

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