Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland team gave fans chance to dream and they return as heroes

By Adrian Rutherford

They arrived in France daring to dream, and for two wonderful weeks they lived that dream.

Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 odyssey may be over, but for the thousands of fans it has left memories which will last a lifetime.

And when the disappointment passes, as it soon will, the tournament will be remembered not for the moment in Paris on Saturday when the journey ended.

Instead, it will be the day that fans partied on the beach in Nice.

It will be the afternoon when we were Kings of Lyon, claiming our first win at a major finals for 34 years.

It will be the night in Paris when 10,000 in green and white sang and danced in the stands after losing to Germany.

And it will be the heroes' welcome which awaits Michael O'Neill and his players when they return to Belfast today.

It has been a truly wonderful fortnight.

The squad, and the army of fans that provided a noisy and colourful backdrop in cities across France, will leave with no regrets.

Disappointment? Perhaps.

They could, maybe should, have reached the quarter-finals, falling just short after another epic effort against Wales.

But our footballers and fans have given so much to Euro 2016.

The build-up to the tournament had been overshadowed by the fear of terror which continues to disrupt daily life here.

Its opening days brought appalling scenes of hooligans rioting on the streets of Marseilles.

There was also the chaos of the transport strike which paralysed the country's rail and plane network.

But Northern Ireland, and particularly our supporters, have been an antidote to all of the problems.

The tournament will be so much poorer without us.

Even after the final whistle blew on their Euro dreams on Saturday evening, the GAWA continued to party in the stands.

And when they finally left the Parc des Princes, there was a sense of pride at what we have brought to the competition.

Jonathan Maguire from Belfast said: "I'm so proud. You saw the scenes tonight, which were just incredible.

"It has been an amazing journey. I've had the best two weeks of my life."

Gary Pearce said: "I don't think I've ever been so proud to say I'm from Northern Ireland.

"I'm disappointed today, obviously, but tomorrow I know I'll look back with pride on what we have done out here."

Paul Gregg, who travelled from Magherafelt, said: "The lads did their absolute best, they ran their hearts out. It's gutting to go out - it had to come to an end at some point, but it is still so hard to be going home."

First Minister Arlene Foster had travelled to Paris for the game.

She joined the players on the pitch afterwards, and said it had been an "unforgettable journey".

"They united the country and made us all incredibly proud," she added.

Golf star Rory McIlroy tweeted: "You did us all proud Northern Ireland. It's only the beginning, let's get to the World Cup in 2018 #GAWA."

And boxer Carl Frampton posted: "Always proud of our boys. #GAWA till I die."

Having not played at a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup, being in France was an achievement in itself for Northern Ireland.

They had been written off before a ball was even kicked, but defied the odds to stay beyond the group stages.

The fans played their part too. They have been wonderful ambassadors for our country.

In Nice they partied with Polish supporters, swapping shirts and scarves.

And in Lyon they clubbed together to pay for a window at a restaurant after it was accidentally broken during a game of football.

The past two weeks have also done more for cross-border relations than almost anything else in recent times.

After the tragic death of Darren Rodgers in Nice, Irish supporters sang his name and applauded during their game against Sweden.

And on Saturday, a Republic fan was photographed singing and dancing among the GAWA at the Parc des Princes.

Even amid the pain of defeat our fans showed their class, shaking hands with their Welsh counterparts and wishing them luck for their next game.

Theirs too is an incredible story, borne out of tragedy following the death of Gary Speed in 2011.

After waiting more than half a century for an appearance at a major tournament, Wales are now through to the last eight.

Good luck to them.

But for Northern Ireland the journey is over.

In time, Michael O'Neill's class of 2016 will be remembered in the same way as the great teams of 1958, '82 and '86.

Three weeks ago they arrived in France as a group of players daring to dream.

Today they return as national heroes.

Belfast Telegraph

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