Belfast Telegraph

Ecstatic and chaotic homecoming for Northern Ireland Euro 2016 team at Belfast fanzone in Titanic Quarter

Thousands descend on Titanic Quarter fanzone to welcome Michael O'Neill's squad of stars back from European Championships

By Fionola Meredith

You don't have to be a football fan to feel the power of the Green and White Army.

The sheer unbridled exuberance, jubilation and irresistible good humour of the travelling local supporters at the Euro championship meant that Northern Ireland was on everybody's lips for all the right reasons, not the wrong ones, for a change.

And it was just the same at the much-awaited homecoming of the team to the fanzone at Titanic Quarter.

These men were greeted like rock stars playing a home crowd, thousands of fans roaring their adoration.

Outside the venue, as supporters arrived, a battered old Citroen CV6 was parked.

The seats were draped with Northern Ireland team flags, a 'Dare to Dream' sticker took up most of the side window and there was a pair of green sunglasses dangling jauntily from the mirror.

A message on the rear window read: "Ceci n'est pas une voiture… c'est un art de vivre". This isn't a car, it's an art of living.

Not many people noticed the CV6 sitting there, but somehow this crazy vehicle seemed to sum up the spirit of the occasion.

Ramshackle, joyous and unashamedly Northern Irish, in a French kind of way.

Inside the Belsonic arena, close to the Titanic slipways, the music was thumping, the pints were slopping and the sun was coming and going.

It would be a long wait before the team would finally appear, but nobody seemed to mind.

"To the best fans in the world," it said on the huge screen above the stage.

"You made all the difference. Thank you."

There was plenty of time to reminisce about the glories and the anguish of the tournament. And time, too, to remember things like the Northern Ireland fans singing happy birthday to a German supporter, or the Northern Ireland and Wales fans uniting to find a lost young supporter's dad in Paris.

Or even Eric Cantona performing a very Gallic version of Will Grigg's on Fire.

And of course there was plenty more time to sing.

Will Grigg was once more on fire (despite having come nowhere near the pitch), Sweet Caroline was stomping - "Good times never seemed so good, so good, so good" - and as everyone now knows "We're Not Brazil, We're Northern Ireland".

Even Show Me the Way to Amarillo got a full blast of sha-la-las on the chorus.

George King, from Donegall Pass, was resplendent in a specially-made green shamrock suit and velvet top hat.

Freshly back from France, he was carrying a bucket full of coins to be donated to the families of the two local fans who died during the tournament.

"I managed to get €300 for the bereaved families while I was in France, and 200 in sterling," he said. "And I'm hoping to pick up a bit more for them tonight."

King said the best thing about following the team abroad was the spirit of the fans, who struck up friendships with everyone they met.

"But I'm here tonight to show support for the team itself. I am so proud of them."

The Orr family, from Lisburn - dad Wallace with a flag stuck at a rakish angle in his hat - were loving the occasion, having attended almost all of the matches screened at the fanzone.

"You just can't beat the atmosphere here, the friendliness," said Naomi Orr.

"It was really nice to see fans from both the Republic and Northern Ireland getting on together so well. And all ages too.

"It's more than just the football.

"To be honest, I was chatting so much to people I'd met that I didn't even watch the matches half the time. It just puts a smile on people's faces, you know?"

Danielle Leathem, who was there with Zak, aged seven, and her friend Sharon Cahoon said: "We're here to welcome our heroes home.

"We were gutted to see them go out, heartbroken isn't the word. But they did do so brilliantly. So we just want to say thanks."

By the time that Michael O'Neill and his team finally made it on to the stage - introduced one by one by the BBC's Stephen Watson - the crowd had been waiting for hours.

But then again they had waited 30 years to welcome a team back from a major football tournament.

A few more minutes was something they were willing to give, and when at last the moment came, the fans did not stint themselves in their deep, heart-felt appreciation for the men who had lit up their lives for the past few weeks.

And maybe that was what it was all about.

For once, we had a chance to feel great about ourselves, and we took it.

Standing there in the evening sunshine, the great shipyard cranes forming a splendid backdrop, it seemed that we'd learned something new about the art of living.

Belfast Telegraph