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Sun-kissed splendour of French Riviera just like paradise for fans already in dreamland

Invasion of the Green and White Army continues apace as the promenades of Nice buzz with excitement ahead of eagerly-anticipated opener

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 11/06/2016

Let battle commence: The opening ceremony prior to the tournament opener between France and Romania at Stade de France in Paris last night
Let battle commence: The opening ceremony prior to the tournament opener between France and Romania at Stade de France in Paris last night
Raring to go: Ryan Gourley, Michael Ferguson, Luke Russell, Christopher McCabe and Conor McCluskey arrive at George Best Belfast City airport en route to the Euros
On the way: NI fans at the airport Karen Turkington, Chloe Shanks, Chris Turner, Chris Gorman and Joe Hughes
Famous face: Northern Ireland fans Chris Geoghegan and Richard McKnight from Belfast bump into Gary Lineker in France

The final descent on the flight path into Cote d'Azur Airport outside Nice is one of the most spectacular in the world.

Planes sweep over the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean, above the city's pebbled beach before coming in to land.

For many Northern Ireland fans arriving here at the start of their team's Euro 2016 odyssey, it is the moment the dream finally seems real. One supporter shows a photograph taken on his phone on the final stages of his flight into Nice.

"That is when it really hit home that we are here," he says, almost overcome with emotion.

The sentiment is understandable.

This is a moment of history for Northern Ireland's footballers, who are appearing at their first major tournament for 30 years.

Eight months have passed since the glorious night in Belfast when the team beat Greece to book their journey to France.

Such is the feat achieved by Michael O'Neill and his players that only now, as fans arrive in Nice, is it finally sinking in.

An estimated 10,000 supporters are heading here for the team's opening game against Poland tomorrow.

The invasion has gathered pace significantly over the last 24 hours.

Shortly after 10am yesterday, a fresh wave of fans arrived.

Chris Gorman, Karen Turkington and Joe Hughes were among a group who flew from Belfast via an overnight stopover in Paris.

Sporting sunglasses and matching Northern Ireland Euro 2016 polo shirts, they cannot wait for kick-off.

"We came yesterday - we flew to Paris and made our way down to Nice this morning," said Karen. They have tickets for the team's entire Euro campaign.

"We are here until the finish - how ever long Northern Ireland are here," said Joe.

"We've followed the team our whole lives, going to matches home and away for years - it's been a long time coming."

Karen adds: "It's the trip of a lifetime. To follow our country at the Euros is going to be the most amazing experience."

Also part of the pack are Chris Turner and Chloe Shanks.

"I never thought we would make it," Chris said.

"When we saw the draw for the qualifying group we thought we'd an outside chance, but then you remember it's Northern Ireland - we always find a way to mess it up.

"They have proved us all wrong this time, though."

A thunderstorm which broke over the French Riviera on Thursday evening had passed yesterday.

At daybreak the city's promenade was bathed in sunshine.

The balmy weather and glamorous setting adds to the sense of occasion for the Green and White Army.

Also arriving in Nice yesterday was lifelong Northern Ireland supporter Stephen Barr.

He says there is great enthusiasm among the fans.

"We are all very excited. It's going to get real very quickly as we see the fans gathering," he said. "We're all looking forward to a big game on Sunday."

Mr Barr is staying until June 28 and is going to all three of Northern Ireland's group games.

He also plans to watch Iceland v Austria, Iceland v Hungary and a last-16 tie.

Fans arriving early have been strolling along the promenade, lined by rows of pastel-painted buildings, and the narrow streets of the Old Town, with its atmospheric restaurants and boutiques.

One of the main calling points is Ma Nolan's, an Irish bar close to the seafront.

It has been making preparations for the great Green and White invasion by stocking up on alcohol, posting a photograph of several hundred newly-arrived beer barrels on its Twitter site.

On the streets there is a growing sense of anticipation as fans pile into town.

Not even the wave of strikes which have crippled the country's transport system has weakened the fans' enthusiasm.

Many pundits have written Northern Ireland off even before a ball has been kicked.

The bookmakers have them at 300/1 to lift the trophy, but among the fans there is a defiant sense of optimism.

John Carlisle, who has travelled from Belfast, believes they can defy the odds again.

"Anything can happen with Northern Ireland. I'm just glad that we are here," he said.

"They have already won it for us by qualifying, but we are capable of taking points in this group and we're capable of making the next round."

Anne Shanks said: "We are all buzzing for Sunday. I think the team will do brilliantly."

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