Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Time for talking almost over, says O'Neill as Northern Ireland players arrive in Lyon

Northern Ireland manager admits team determined to make fans proud as countdown to Euro opener begins

By Adrian Rutherford

Northern Ireland's footballers jetted into France yesterday, with Michael O'Neill vowing they are ready to leave their mark on Euro 2016.

A welcome party was on hand to meet the squad after they touched down at Lyon Saint Exupery Airport shortly before 4.30pm.

The players and manager were greeted by the local mayor and Uefa delegates before being whisked off to their training base. The team's arrival marks the start of the final countdown to the Euros.

Northern Ireland kick off against Poland in Nice on Sunday in what will be their first match at a major tournament for 30 years.

Speaking on the runway moments after stepping off the plane, O'Neill admitted anticipation was building for everyone.

"There is a sense of excitement for all of us. This is a new experience for myself and for all of the players," he said.

More than 40,000 fans are expected to arrive in France over the coming days.

Flights have been booked for months, the scramble for tickets is over, and soon the Green and White Army will be on the march.

O'Neill added: "We're going to bring thousands of supporters out here, we're delighted to be here.

"It's a fantastic achievement to be out here, but having achieved that we want to leave our mark on the tournament.

"The main thing is that it's a positive experience and an enjoyable experience for everyone, and we'll only do that if we continue playing the way we have done recently.

"We've come here in a good state - 12 games unbeaten - and we want to make sure we try and extend that once the tournament starts." Some 241 days have passed from the glorious night when Northern Ireland beat Greece to secure qualification.

Since then the hype has steadily grown, but yesterday was the day it finally seemed real as the players set foot in France.

The team had flown out of Belfast last Monday and spent most of last week at a training camp in Austria.

It was then on to Slovakia, where they drew 0-0 in their final warm-up game on Saturday night.

The players were smartly dressed in their official tournament suits as they arrived at Bratislava Airport yesterday afternoon. Among the group was Stuart Dallas, who had arrived back that morning after a flying visit home to Cookstown to get married.

The chartered flight out of the Slovakian capital was delayed by almost an hour after a thunderstorm hit the area.

But after a 30-year wait for a major tournament, an extra 60 minutes wasn't going to worry anyone.

The stormy weather had given way to warm sunshine as the plane touched down in Lyon around 90 minutes later.

The flight attendants delivered a good luck message over the PA system before the players disembarked. As they stepped on to the runway they were greeted by the Mayor of Saint Georges de Reneins, the town where they are based, and Uefa delegates.

The official coach, emblazoned with the Northern Ireland flag and the Dare To Dream hashtag, was waiting to whisk them away, flanked by police outriders.

The first wave of fans are expected tomorrow on board a flight from Belfast to Nice.

Defender Jonny Evans is predicting a special atmosphere.

"It's going to be fantastic - everyone you speak to is trying to get out here," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"We know as a country we are going to be represented really well. We've got some unbelievable supporters - fans who travel all around Europe.

"They always have a great reputation wherever they go and they are always well received.

"That is something they have got to be proud of, and as players we are really proud of them as well."

Evans said arriving in France has made the dream finally seem real. "It's still a wee bit surreal but once we get to our base I think that's when it will hit us just how big this is," he added.

"It's something we've been looking forward to - we can't wait to get here and get settled.

"It is about being able to unpack our suitcases and get stuck in for however long we are here - hopefully longer than we are booked in for."

Belfast Telegraph