EURO 2016 FEATURE: Nice is only the starter of what promises to be a magnificent banquet

Northern Ireland fans in Nice
Northern Ireland fans in Nice

Nice to see you, to see you Nice!

That will be the overriding sentiment from Northern Ireland’s visit to the French Riviera.

The result against Poland may not have gone our way, but what the heck, there’s still Ukraine to come and world champions Germany!

The Norn Iron motto for the Euros is Dare to Dream - and that’s certainly hasn’t been banished to the archives after just one result.

And even if it does eventually prove a dream too far for Michael O’Neill and his men, then at least we have the memories.

There will be plenty of those for the thousands who made their way here by whatever means - and no matter how long it took.

The group of fans I bumped into 200miles from Nice on Saturday afternoon had left Belfast at midday on Thursday in two camper vans.

Forty-eight hours of travelling via a boat trip from Rosslare to Cherbourg was beginning to take its toll.

But it would have been worth it given the welcome that lay in wait and despite Arkadiusz Milik’s 51st-minute strike at the Allianz Riviera stadium.

With some brilliant sunshine and hospitality on offer, it was time to let the celebrations begin - and oh how the fans, both Northern Irish and Polish alike - did so in tandem off the Promenade de Anglais.

Folks back home will have woken up on Sunday morning to reports of fighting, with comparisons made to the troubles in Marseille that marred England’s trip there.

But both sets of supporters can hold their heads high, with blame apportioned to local Ultras intent of spoilling the party.

Not that they did - the joyous atmosphere continued long into the early hours, with both countries united in celebrations and new allegiances forged.

And it was the same on match day, too.

Fans travelled back and forth to the ground together on buses, exchanging tribal chants that caused no offence.

Inside the ground, you couldn’t help feel the sense of occasion for the Northern Ireland supporters present.

Not since Mexico 1986 had they experienced moments like this, while many had not even been born when Billy Bingham’s side took on the likes of Spain and Brazil in Guadalajara and Zapopan.

Certainly not the two toddlers who were pushed into the stadium on pushchairs, with no knowledge of the significance of the day.

Far too many generations had missed out, fathers and grandfathers’ tales of past glory days all too few, while so many had passed on without seeing their side back at a major championships.

It was certainly an emotional occasion - and one that will never be tarnished by the result.

Yes there will have been disappointment.

But there remains a sense of overpowering pride.

Northern Ireland are back at the top table, mingling with the elite and holding their own.

And Nice is only the starter of what promises to be a magnificent banquet!