Belfast Telegraph

'Northern Ireland fans have done themselves proud,' says O'Neill

Northern Ireland's manager Michael O'Neill is full of praise for the Green and White Army as they give side a homecoming to remember after French heroics

By Laura Abernethy

From the moment the gates opened, this was about the fans - the Green and White Army.

As they flooded into the fanzone behind Titanic Belfast for the Northern Ireland heroes' homecoming, the message on the big screen was a thank you to "the best fans in the world". "You made all the difference," it read.

Despite the team crashing out of the Euro 2016 tournament on Saturday, the fans came in their thousands - young and old, male and female, from right across the province - to celebrate the success.

As each of the players, starting with the goalkeepers and ending with captain Steven Davis, were introduced to the stage by the BBC's Stephen Watson, the Green and White Army roared.

At times, the players were drowned out by the fans chanting their names. And that level of support clearly meant just as much to the team.

Star striker Kyle Lafferty said the Green and White Army were the real winners.

"This is going to live with me for the rest of my life," he added. "The performance that the lads put in and how far we got was beyond our own expectations.

"On the pitch we've done well, but overall the winners are the fans.

"What you have done in France and what you have done back in Belfast has been incredible. All the players are proud and so delighted."

Captain Steven Davis was the last of the players to take the stage. He said the fantastic homecoming event was the "icing on the cake" after the historic tournament.

"I don't think words can sum up what you have done for us," he explained.

"From the first minute going out there and then to come here tonight and see the turnout, it has been an incredible experience. You have followed us through every single minute.

"The images that have been beamed around the world are incredible.

"Everyone was talking about our fans. We're lucky to be able to call you our own.

"It has been the best experience of my career and I think that goes for everybody."

Coach Michael O'Neill added that the messages, videos and pictures from the fans at home helped to give the team a boost throughout their three weeks in France.

He said: "We had such amazing support from the fans at the games and we see it here. It really gave us a lift when we saw the atmosphere.

"It brought everyone together, and I think it was fantastic. The supporters did themselves credit, whether they were here or whether they were in France."

He paid tribute to his team and the staff behind the side who helped Northern Ireland reach the final 16 of their first tournament in more than 30 years.

"We played with such togetherness, such spirit and such unity, and I think it was a credit to every one of them," he said.

His team thanked him for his leadership with a round of the bumps amidst a confetti shower at the end of a rousing rendition of Sweet Caroline - a song that has become a fan anthem.

O'Neill said the team and the fans now needed to build on this to make Northern Ireland better than ever before.

The crowd immediately burst into chants of "Russia" as he discussed what comes next. Northern Ireland will begin their qualifying campaign for the World Cup in Russia later this year.

"That's the dream again," O'Neill added. "What we've done is hopefully broken that barrier that people thought we would never get the chance to go to a major tournament again.

"We have done that and we obviously want to try and do that for 2018. We'll have the Germans back here in Belfast and, trust me, we'll need you all that night as well.

"We just want a team that will be competitive, that the people of Northern Ireland can be proud of, and we'll do everything possible to try and qualify for Russia."

As O'Neill reflected on the tournament, he said that there could be a great legacy from the contest for football and for the people of Northern Ireland. "I am immensely proud to say that I am Northern Irish and to see everything that is good about Northern Ireland in the stadiums in Paris and here tonight... that togetherness, that spirit and the unity," he explained.

"We should really try to hold onto that and keep it going moving forward.

"Together we can do great things. We have proven that in this competition. We need to keep proving that.

"With the new stadium and everything, there is a lot of positivity moving forward.

"I hope that this leaves a legacy. I just want every young boy, wherever you are from in Northern Ireland and wherever you grow up, I want you to play for Northern Ireland."

The thousands also took a moment to pause and remember two fans - Darren Rodgers and Archie Rainey - who both tragically lost their lives in France during the tournament.

Representatives of their families were there to hear the Green and White Army applaud the two fans, as they had done in the matches after their deaths.

First Minister Arlene Foster, who attended the first and last Northern Ireland games in France, also paid a warm tribute to the supporters.

Fresh from meeting with the Queen, Mrs Foster joined the players on stage.

"I was so proud of each and every one of our fans, whether they were in France or whether they were here in Northern Ireland," she said.

"They were absolutely amazing and I know it meant to the boys. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart. I really enjoyed the experience in France and we were robbed!"

Fans had waited hours to see the team, but they said that the event was a fitting tribute to their heroes.

Gordon Nicholl (37) from Lisburn added: "This helps us get over the loss. It's a fitting end to the last couple of weeks.

"We were away for the first two games - we experienced it, we lived it, we had the time of our lives. It was just something else being there with the whole country.

"We felt like it was our duty to come down tonight and see the end of the journey. We are delighted to see everyone coming together. It's great to be able to wear your shirt with pride.

"I have been a fan since I was 10 years old, so it is just wonderful to see so many people backing the team. I've brought my own children along together and I hope this is something they will remember, but I don't think we'll have to wait 30 years for another one."

Jennifer Campbell (28), from Belfast, added: "This is different to the matches as it's a real celebration. Driving down the road and seeing everyone out in their shirts is great.

"We were really sad when the games were all over, but it's just amazing to have one last party."

Emma Crilly (27), from Belfast, said: "We've been to every match down at the fanzone since they started and we've just have such a good time. The atmosphere has been amazing.

"We had been at matches from time to time, but we've really got behind them for this tournament. It really has brought everyone together."

Retired Brian White (64), from Greenisland in Co Antrim, followed the team around France.

He said: "It was well worth the effort and the boys did not let us down. They were really fantastic the whole way throughout the competition, and the support from the fans was absolutely brilliant.

"When they scored against Ukraine, all those delayed and cancelled planes, trains and automobiles did not matter. It was fantastic."

"The atmosphere was unreal. The boys should be so proud. Man of the tournament was goalkeeper Michael McGovern. He was brilliant."

Grandmother Julie McCrory, 47, from the Shankill area of Belfast, was also full of praise.

She said: "They were fantastic. They did the whole country proud."

Belfast Telegraph