Defeated but proud, Northern Ireland fans exit Euro 2016 with heads held high

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Northern Ireland’s remarkable fans danced in the stands after their side exited the European Championships 2016.

Lauded across France for their sense of humour and fun the Green and White Army (GAWA) has won hearts with its conduct in Nice, Lyon and Paris.

The plucky team which had already exceeded expectations before its narrow last 16 loss to Wales applauded their supporters before they left the pitch at Paris’s Parc des Princes.

The GAWA has seen tragedy, losing Darren Rodgers in a fatal fall and Archie Rainey to a heart attack during an acclaimed victory over Ukraine.

It has helped elderly women with their suitcases up steep steps and kept its promise to avoid the violent scenes of Marseille and Lille.

And even Eric Cantona has sung the anthem-like Will Grigg’s On Fire, an ironic plaudit for a striker who did not play a minute.

Tourists from all over the world taking selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower were swept up in the emotion.

But ultimately a small country competing in its first major tournament for 30 years had to concede defeat at the highest level of the sport.

Supporters arrived from Melbourne and Brisbane for Saturday’s knock-out clash.

It has been a meeting of the diaspora, accountants living in Beirut mixing with brewers in Sweden in convivial and noisy recreation.

One banner draped in the stadium commemorated John Burns, 52, the “bald eagle” from Islandmagee in Co Antrim who died four years ago from cancer.

He would have loved to have been at the tournament, friends said, and his nephew spent the money he left him in his will to be there.

Fans had partied in the Trocadero overlooking the River Seine as they sang “stand up for the reds and greens”.

Northern Ireland’s travelling support has won plaudits everywhere it has gone with its brand of humour, warmth and manners.

Long after the Welsh supporters had retired to the pub chants of Green and White Army (GAWA) echoed around the stadium.