Northern Ireland’s footballers have been given a heroes’ welcome as they returned home after their epic Euro 2016 journey.
They received a rapturous reception as they emerged at the Belfast fanzone where nearly 10,000 supporters had squeezed on to the Titanic slipways.
Manager Michael O’Neill was given the bumps amid a flurry of coloured confetti as the crowd belted out “good times never felt so good”, a line from Neil Diamond’s hit Sweet Caroline, which has become a tournament anthem.
He said he hoped the team’s success would inspire young people in the region.
O’Neill said: “Everyone has been magnificent. What we have done, hopefully, we have broken that barrier that people thought we would never get the chance to go a major tournament again. We have done that.
“I just want every young boy, wherever you are from in Northern Ireland, wherever you grow up, I just want you to play for Northern Ireland.”
Team captain Stephen Davis described the reception as the “icing on the cake”.
He said: “It is vitally important that we build on this. We have shown we can compete with the rest of them and we need to continue to do that.”
There was a party atmosphere as supporters who had waited for several hours to see the team relived some of the magic moments from the competition including the two goals scored against Ukraine in Lyon.
Chants of support for defender Gareth McAuley, whose unlucky touch in the knockout game against Wales resulted in an own goal, also echoed around the open air fanzone.
He told them: “The atmosphere you create gets us through games. It gives us wings.”
Goalkeeper Michael McGovern described the tournament as “way beyond” his expectations and paid tribute to the support at home and in France.
Forward Jamie Ward said: “Sport’s on the up in Northern Ireland - golf, boxing, football.
“I think people just write it off because it’s a little country and we’ve come to bite people on the backside. Obviously Rory McIlroy is doing well in golf, Carl Frampton’s doing well in boxing so it’s great to see.”