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Saturday 10 December 2016

Heartbreak as heroes head for home

Tears mixed with overwhelming pride as team do our fans and nation proud

Robbie Keane shares a moment with his son after the match. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Robbie Keane shares a moment with his son after the match. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Seamus Coleman after the game. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
John O'Shea of Republic of Ireland with his son. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
It was an emotional rollercoaster for supporters watching in Dublin and in the stadium. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
It was an emotional rollercoaster for supporters watching in Dublin and in the stadium. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Au revoir Euro 2016.

The Irish footballing Tour de France ended at the boots (and heads) of our hosts in Lyon.

France may have knocked us out of the tournament but the locals don't want us to leave.

The defeat left thousands of Irish fans upset in Lyon but Thomas Brennan from Dorset St in Dublin said pride was the overriding emotion.

"I'm happy and proud of the lads and the supporters," he said. "There are no other fans in the world who sing like us or behave like us. It's amazing"

The omens before kick-off were good. We were outnumbered in the 59,000-seater stadium, but the green hordes inside made sure they were heard and seen.

Apart from the large bank in one corner, Irish fans managed to infiltrate all sections of the French support and green jerseys, suits and faces could be seen everywhere.

TRANSPARENCY

"We should have more fans here," said Eugene Corcoran from Tralee who had travelled with his nephew Eoin.

"There should have been more tickets and more transparency on UEFA's part," he added.

French and Irish fans mingled with each other as locals wearing jerseys commemorating the host's 1998 World Cup win, sang Stand Up For The Boys in Green.

Even the refs were wearing green as they warmed up with the two teams. What came next were the best two minutes in the history of Irish football.

A penalty in the opening moments of the game under the clear blue skies in South France. The hosts had barely touched the ball when Robbie Brady converted to put us one up. We were in dreamland as the Irish hugged, kissed and jumped in jubilation.

"When the goal went in it was like nothing I've ever experienced," said Eoin.

"It's up there with one of the best moments of my life. I have never seen anything like it. The place was buzzing."

Irish supporters stayed on their feet until half time. Many were too nervous to sit. They kicked and headed every ball with the players, made every tackle and did all they could to get the Boys in Green over the line.

The barricades had held for 45 minutes but we knew a re-energised French assault would emerge for the second half. Elimination from the competition at this stage was unthinkable to our hosts and to local boy Antoine Griezmann.

The 25-year-old struck twice - a header to equalise the game and a lead goal three minutes later.

In the stands, you could sense Irish fans had resigned themselves to their fate and it would be the French progressing to the quarter final. No revenge for Thierry Henry's handball. No march on Paris for a quarter-final.

"I am very disappointed but I am so proud to be here. It was a brave performance," said Eamon Cleary from Co Cork.

"We'll be back in two years to support them at the World Cup in Russia."

By the final whistle, the scenes had become too much for many who broke the bank, their wallets and their children's piggy banks to make it here. Tears filled the eyes of thousands as they realised it was time to head home.

The 10,000 Ireland fans in one corner of the stadium stayed behind for 30 minutes after the final whistle to show their appreciation for the players. They spontaneously burst into the Fields of Athenry as players and management looked on.

Cathal Lynch, from Leitrim, is a veteran supporter who has followed the Boys in Green at five international tournaments since 1988.

SINGING

"This was one of the better ones," he said. "The singing at the end is the norm for Irish supporters. We know how to do things and the players appreciate that."

Manager Martin O'Neill paid tribute to the players and the fans for giving it their all.

"It was a brilliant effort from the team and the supporters and I'm really sorry that we couldn't see it through," he said.

"It was a difficult game, I must admit but, physically, the players gave absolutely everything, as they did over all the games."

Ireland captain Seamus Coleman paid tribute to the fans and said the team were "disappointed we couldn't see it out".

"They [the fans] were so positive towards us at the end. There is a special bond between the fans and the players," he added.

That there certainly is.

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