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Hero's reception for returning Northern Ireland team

Northern Ireland's squad were welcomed back home from Euro 2016 on Monday night to a hero's reception by 10,000 supporters at an event in Belfast.

Michael O'Neill's team had been eliminated by fellow home nation Wales two days earlier but, having reached their first major tournament in 30 years to qualify for France, they then exceeded many people's expectations by making it through to the round-of-16.

Northern Irish fans arrived in the Titanic Quarter to show their appreciation for the achievements of the team and O'Neill, who was given the bumps on stage by Kyle Lafferty and others as confetti came down, insisted his side had helped restore pride.

"It's absolutely amazing," O'Neill 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 team left Lyon on Monday, departing the city where goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn had delivered their first ever Euros victory earlier this month.

Although videos and pictures celebrating that triumph back home had reached the players in France, the full impact of their efforts out there could only truly be digested by the scenes awaiting them in Belfast.

Defender Jonny Evans had cried following the victory over Ukraine and he looked visibly moved again on stage.

"For the players, it was the best experience of our lives," added the defender.

"I actually think the fans outshone us out there, they were brilliant."

Those comments were echoed by captain Steven Davis.

"I don't think words can sum up what they've done for us," noted the Southampton midfielder.

"This is the icing on the cake, it's been an incredible experience and one they've followed us with. It's the story of France, everyone's been talking about the fans and rightly so."

Of all the cheers given to the players, the loudest was perhaps reserved for defender McAuley, whose own goal against the Welsh ultimately sealed their plane home this week.

First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster was among those who spoke on stage and she ditched a red jacket in front of the crowd after it was pointed out to her that it was the colour of the Welsh jersey.

"I was so proud of each and every one of our fans," she told those in front of her. "I know it meant an awful lot to our boys."

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