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Heroes' welcome for Northern Ireland players in Belfast

Published 27/06/2016

Manager Michael O'Neill celebrates with his players at the Titanic Fanzone, Belfast
Manager Michael O'Neill celebrates with his players at the Titanic Fanzone, Belfast

Northern Ireland's footballers have been given a heroes' welcome as they returned home after their epic Euro 2016 journey.

They received a rapturous reception as they emerged at the Belfast fan zone where nearly 10,000 supporters had squeezed on to the Titanic slipways.

Manager Michael O'Neill was given the bumps amid a flurry of coloured confetti as the crowd belted out "good times never felt so good", a line from Neil Diamond's hit Sweet Caroline, which has become a tournament anthem.

He said he hoped the team's success would inspire young people in the region.

O'Neill said: "Everyone has been magnificent. What we have done, hopefully, we have broken that barrier that people thought we would never get the chance to go a major tournament again. We have done that.

"I just want every young boy, wherever you are from in Northern Ireland, wherever you grow up, I just want you to play for Northern Ireland."

Team captain Stephen Davis described the reception as the "icing on the cake".

"Words cannot sum it up," he said, adding that the players hope to capitalise on the momentum.

He said: "It is vitally important that we build on this. We have shown we can compete with the rest of them and we need to continue to do that."

There was a party atmosphere as supporters who had waited for several hours to see the team relived some of the magic moments from the competition including the two goals scored against Ukraine in Lyon.

Chants of support for defender Gareth McAuley, whose unlucky touch in the knockout game against Wales resulted in an own goal, also echoed around the open air fan zone.

He told them: "The atmosphere you create gets us through games. It gives us wings."

Although the crowd went wild, a bashful Will Grigg declined to join the dancing to a 1990s dance hit now adopted in his honour.

"It has been unbelievable. It has been crazy," he said.

Goalkeeper Michael McGovern described the tournament as "way beyond" his expectations and paid tribute to the support at home and in France.

Among the cheering crowd was superfan Matthew Wright, 24, an electrician from Armagh who had just returned from Paris.

Despite the "gut-wrenching" result, he said the team should be proud.

"I thought we were the better team, we didn't deserve to go out but, I suppose if you give a player like Gareth Bale space these things happen.

"I was at the match in Windsor Park in 2005 when we beat England 1-0 and in 2006 when we won 3-2 against Spain, but I think the match against Ukraine topped it all. It was probably one of the proudest moments watching football."

Retired Brian White, 64, from Greenisland in Co Antrim, also followed the team around France.

He said: "It was well worth the effort. The boys did not let us down, they were fantastic the whole way through the competition and the support from the fans was absolutely brilliant.

"When they scored against Ukraine, all those delayed and cancelled planes, trains and automobiles did not matter. It was fantastic."

Sisters Angela and Georgie Barnes, aged 47 and 50, from Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, said they had enjoyed every one of the team's performances.

Angela said: "We have been down in the fan zone for all the games. My voice is hoarse from shouting.

"The atmosphere was unreal. The boys should be so proud. Man of the tournament was goalkeeper Michael McGovern. He was just brilliant."

Grandmother Julie McCrory, 47, from the Shankill area of Belfast, was also full of praise.

She said: "They were fantastic. They did the whole country proud."

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, who twice travelled to France for games, also joined the players on stage and said she was "so proud" of their achievements.

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