Euro 2016: Home are the heroes after French odyssey
Irish team return with heads held high as new generation praised, write Ralph Riegel, Wayne O'Connor and Laura Larkin
An emotional Robbie Keane paid tribute to the Ireland fans and players in what may be his last act as captain of the squad. But as the team arrived home to a heroes' welcome, the message was clear - Ireland's young players promise a bright future for our national team.
Players such as Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Darren Randolph emerged as the most influential players in Ireland's unexpected progression to the final 16.
And although their arrival home was tinged with sadness at not having gone even further in the tournament, the mood in Dublin Airport was happy and hopeful.
Dozens of fans had gathered to greet the squad as they touched down on Irish soil and Robbie Keane spoke to the fans briefly as he and his team-mates signed autographs and posed for pictures.
During Robbie's tribute to his team-mates, one woman interrupted to reassure him and the rest of the squad "you're still legends" and a spontaneous round of 'Olé Olé Olé' immediately broke out among the assembled group.
"I'm very, very emotional. The players were absolutely magnificent. They poured their heart and soul into this competition," said Keane.
"I couldn't ask for a better set of players to play with. You don't see what goes on behind the scenes, these players are desperate to do their best for their country. They've done that.
"It's very important as captain of this country to say that because it brings tears to my eyes and makes me feel like a very, very proud Irishman."
He thanked the fans profusely for their support, which has made headlines around the world for all of the right reasons.
The journey had been "incredible" but for the country's top goalscorer the only way forward for the team is up.
"The journey is only beginning with these young players," added Keane.
Manager Martin O'Neill also had sincere words of gratitude to both the fans in the stands and those at home, as well as to the players.
He said: "We want to try to continue on an upward spiral, if at all possible. The support has been sensational and the players, I have to say, were unbelievable.
"(It took) every ounce of energy they had in their bodies to play yesterday, when the other team maybe had a few days' rest and we were denied perhaps the sort of support we had seen in the previous three games. Despite all of those things, they have been magnificent and on behalf of (the backroom staff) and Roy, it's been a privilege to be involved with them."
Derby County player Jeff Hendrick took to social media last night to post: "I've just had the best few weeks of my life. Pleasure representing this great country."
Baldoyle native Robbie Brady disembarked from the flight grasping a ball signed by the team from the France game - a memento from the tournament in which his performance made him a household name.
FAI boss John Delaney said the team had provided a generation of youngsters with new heroes who would inspire them to play football.
The squad had been written into history, he said, but "the real thing" was the fact that a host of new hopefuls would be encouraged to try and play for Ireland.
The team has captured the hearts of young Irish football fans as dozens of them waited for their delayed flight to touch down for a glimpse of their heroes.
Aaron Murphy (6) waited with his mum Rebecca and his little sister Clara (4).
He was proud of the team's performance and was eager to meet his favourite player, Darren Randolph, having decided that he was the player of the tournament.
Fiadh Tivnan (4) and her dad Geoff, from Drogheda, Co Louth, also travelled to welcome the team home at the airport.
The players weren't the only ones to make the long trek home from France yesterday, while pondering what might have been.
An estimated 50,000 Irish fans were in the greater Rhone-Alps area for Sunday's last 16 clash with France in Lyon, though just 10,000 of the lucky ones among them had managed to secure tickets for the Stade Olympique Lyonnaise.
Tired, emotional and financially exhausted, the Green Army made the long journey home from airports scattered across France.
A total of 12 charter flights left Lyon Airport for Ireland in the 12 hours after the match had finished at 5pm French time.
But thousands more Irish fans flew home through other airports, ranging from Grenoble and Geneva to Paris, Rodez, Zurich, Barcelona and even Turin.
One Irish fan needed a day to recover from an astonishing 28-hour trek to make it to Lyon for the match, during which time he had passed through five countries.
Amongst those heading home was the eight-strong Garda team, led by Superintendent Gerry Delmar, who assisted the French police as liaison officers.
Supt Delmar heartily praised the Irish fans for their behaviour during the tournament, with not a single serious incident reported involving an Irish fan.
"It was wonderful to see such a positive image being portrayed both of Ireland and Irish fans," he said.
"They deserve every credit for their behaviour."
It was behaviour, according to Transport Minister Shane Ross, which would bring tourism to Ireland at a key moment, when the world was recovering from the shock of Brexit.
Sue Feighoney, from Sligo, said: "I was at all three group games in Paris, Bordeaux and Lille with family members.
"They had to go home but I was determined to see the last 16 match, so I travelled to Lyon on my own."
Sue had to catch a train from Lyon to Paris and then a flight home to Ireland via London.
"It was a case of so near but yet so far," she sighed.