Northern Ireland welcomed home as heroes

After an emotional campaign, Northern Ireland were greeted by thousands of appreciative fans in Belfast this week as thoughts turned to building on their historic tournament legacy.

Northern Ireland players celebrate

Their record was won one, lost three – a better sequence cost England boss Roy Hodgson his job – yet Northern Ireland have returned home from UEFA EURO 2016 as heroes. Results wise that may seem incongruous, but as with the quality of the team, their overall performance was greater than the sum of its parts.

First consider that this was Northern Ireland's first ever UEFA European Championship. Then consider that manager Michael O'Neill was without a win in his first nine games and that his previous managerial experience peaked at Shamrock Rovers. Note too that his squad featured only four men playing regular top-tier club football.

From the minute they arrived in France, the players told everyone who listened that they would get out of Group C. The fans told everyone who listened that Will Grigg was on fire and that they were the Green and White Army. The supporters were extraordinary in the face of the odds stacked against them in terms of both numbers and the paucity of goal chances to cheer.

McGovern reflects on 'unbelievable experience'
McGovern reflects on 'unbelievable' experience

Likewise the team. An outpouring of emotion and effort and the tactical bravery of O'Neill against Ukraine delivered a first major tournament win since the 1982 FIFA World Cup. It would be enough to put them through, provided they didn't get hammered by Germany on matchday three. It could have been 5-0 at half-time. That it wasn't was primarily down to the brilliance of No1 Michael McGovern.

While he had been one of the outstanding players in qualifying, this display was on a whole new level. Subjectively, he was called the new Pat Jennings; objectively, the stats classed him as the best goalkeeper in the group stage. He is a free agent as of this Friday. His EURO could prove life-changing.

Michael McGovern (Northern Ireland) Michael McGovern makes a save©AFP/Getty ImagesThe best keeper would meet the best forward for a place in the quarter-finals. In the round of 16 tie in Paris, both Northern Ireland and Wales believed this would be their time. "Gareth Bale did nothing!" some protested after the match had blustered to a bruising, typically British end. Bale did nothing but arrow across a ball that Gareth McAuley turned into his own net in a 1-0 defeat.

The first minister, Arlene Foster, joined the players on the pitch to thank the fans. She recognised the importance of the impression they had made at home and on the rest of Europe, even hugging a crestfallen O'Neill in the tunnel. A few days later, the squad experienced the mania first-hand with a homecoming celebration in Belfast's Titanic Quarter.

Jonny Evans: Our fans are ‘amazing’
Jonny Evans: our fans are 'amazing'

Thousands turned out. McGovern got one of the biggest cheers as well as a new chant. Almost overnight a Northern Irish sporting sensation, he captured the surreal nature of his month.

"It was way beyond anything I'd ever expected," he told the crowd. "It was an unbelievable time, something else. On behalf of the players, thank you very, very much."

There was a tremendous roar too for McAuley, the supporters showing that the ferocious affection they feel for the man who scored against Ukraine had not subsided.

"You are what makes it special for us," the defender told the masses. "The atmosphere you create gets us through games, gets us points, gets us wins, and the journey over the last couple of years has been absolutely incredible."

Northern Ireland supporters Northern Ireland's fans left their mark in France©Getty ImagesAs was the case in every match, every city, every bar, one of the stars of the show was a player who didn't play a single minute. Striker Will Grigg must be thoroughly sick of 'his' song by now, yet it is not every English League One player who has Éric Cantona chanting his name.

Captain Steven Davis was the last player introduced and he paid tribute to the fans before looking to the future.

"I don't think words can sum up what you've done for us," the midfielder said. "This is the icing on the cake; it's been an incredible experience. It's vitally important we build on this. We need to move it forward together."