Belfast Telegraph

Green and White Army salute Northern Ireland team on Euro 2016 heroics at Belfast homecoming

The Green and White Army has given the Northern Ireland team a heroes' welcome on their return to Belfast after they dared to dream at the France Euro finals

Michael O'Neill's team appeared at the Belsonic Fanzone in Belfast on Monday evening.

Over 10,000 fans invaded the Titanic Fanzone to pay homage to the squad that reached the last 16 of the championships in France.

Manager Michael O'Neill said the fans - at home and in France - had been fantastic.

"It's absolutely amazing," he said.

"Football brings everyone together and I think it's fantastic. What we've done hopefully is break down the barrier that we would never get to a major tournament again and we want to try and get to the World Cup in 2018.

"We just want a team the people of Northern Ireland can be proud of and I think we have that now."

The squad arrived back in Belfast this afternoon, 48 hours after their dreams were shattered by Wales. They defied expectations to progress from their group to the knockout stage, but Saturday's 1-0 defeat in Paris ended the journey.

Yesterday the players were making final preparations for the flight home three weeks after arriving in France.

Now Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis wants the feelgood factor around the team to inspire more young players to pull on the green and white shirt.

"Hopefully with the reaction back home there'll be a generation of kids who want to play for Northern Ireland," he said ahead of Monday's homecoming party.

"Hopefully we'll start bringing through more players - there's great pride in the shirt now.

"Everybody I've been speaking to back home has been saying the whole country's going football crazy. It is great to see."

Euro 2016 was Northern Ireland's first major tournament for 30 years. After an opening defeat against Poland, they recovered to beat Ukraine on a memorable afternoon in Lyon.

A narrow loss to Germany in the final group match was enough to see them through to the last 16.

The thousands of fans who flocked to the Parc des Princes stadium on Saturday were left devastated when a late own-goal from Gareth McAuley ended the adventure. But they stayed behind for more than 30 minutes after the final whistle to cheer the team. Afterwards the players went over to applaud them, with some handing over their boots and shirts as souvenirs.

Davis praised the 40,000-plus who came to France across the four games: "It was great to see the fans at the end and to show them our respect, there's mutual respect. All the lads were a bit emotional because it's been such a good experience."

Striker Kyle Lafferty said: "Every single one of the fans should be proud and it hasn't gone unrecognised.

"All the players are proud to play for the shirt and hopefully all the fans have seen that. Players are proud of the fans and appreciate the fans coming here.

"We're just so gutted that we're going home."

Belfast Telegraph