'Good times never seemed so good' for Northern Ireland
Published 08/07/2016 | 15:56
To appreciate the impact of Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 run, you have to look past the results, beyond their French sojourn and back to Belfast 48 hours after their elimination.
There, on a stage in the capital, boss Michael O'Neill was given the bumps by his squad as they were showered with confetti in front of 10,000 proud Northern Irishmen, women and children in the Titanic Quarter.
For outsiders, it would have been a surreal scene. After all, this was a team that had lost three of their four games, had failed to muster a shot on target in their opening clash with Poland and had exited at the same phase which proved to be the end of the road for England.
Yet, while Roy Hodgson's team slunk back to Luton Airport, O'Neill's class of 2016 took their first steps back on Northern Irish soil through a guard of honour.
There were no burning effigies of Gareth McAuley. Instead, the man whose own goal had decided their fate against Wales in Paris was afforded the largest cheer of all. It was pure admiration rather than vilification.
There was no in-depth post-mortem or finger pointing. Instead, Kyle Lafferty, one of the five men dropped by O'Neill following the disappointing loss to the Poles in Nice, was the first to hoist his manager in the air in celebration.
There was no shame or embarrassment. Instead, Northern Irish flags were flown around Belfast, in greater numbers than they had for decades, across a city where unity has not always been rife.
As had been the case for Iceland and Wales, the pre-tournament consensus was that Northern Ireland's great achievement had been reaching their first ever Euros final. Anything else that they achieved in France would be considered a bonus.
But a 12-game unbeaten run prior to arriving, a sequence which was better than anything any of the other 23 countries in France could string together, had raised expectation, both in and out of the camp.
Some of that disappeared on the Cote d'Azur on June 12 when the Poles secured a 1-0 win in the Group C opener. Suddenly, after three decades of waiting for finals football, Northern Ireland faced the possibility of becoming the first team to exit the competition, just four days after their tournament had started.
O'Neill was bold. He cast aside the midfield diamond which the Poles had blunted, dropped the isolated Lafferty - who scored seven times in qualifcation - along with four others with a roll of the dice which would ultimately prove inspired.
A 2-0 win over Ukraine, delivered thanks to goals from McAuley and substitute Niall McGinn, both of whom began life with clubs in Northern Ireland, ensured a memorable night for the 'Kings of Lyon'.
It was enough to book their last-16 passage, although they were indebted to goalkeeper Michael McGovern for a string of saves against the world champions Germany, who somehow only emerged with a 1-0 victory at the Parc des Princes.
McGovern was the epitome of the Northern Irish underdog story. Four days earlier, during some downtime in Lyon, a Northern Irish fan had mistaken him for a Michael McGovern lookalike. Ten days after his Germany heroics, he was a free agent after his contract with Scottish side Hamilton expired.
Turkey's win over the Czech Republic confirmed qualification later that night, though running around after the Germans had left O'Neill's troops too exhausted to celebrate the landmark with any great enthusiasm as they wearily made their way back to Lyon.
They went on to Paris again to meet Wales and despite arguably their best performance of the tournament, when O'Neill's tactics stifled Gareth Bale for the most part, the journey would end.
It was still worth celebrating. For the history they made, for the togetherness they garnered and for the patriotism they inspired. The crowd back in Belfast chanted Neil Diamond's 'Sweet Caroline' as the celebrations drew to a close and for them, young and old, 'good times never seemed so good'.