Jubilant but bleary eyed Northern Ireland footballers were cheered and applauded as they arrived at an airport hours after storming their way into history.
The nation qualified for next year’s European Championships in emphatic style with a 3-1 triumph over Greece at Windsor Park on Thursday.
The celebrations, which included a massive street party in Belfast city centre, lasted well into the night – but there was a noticeable spring in the step of dozens of fans waiting at Belfast City Airport to board a flight for Finland ahead of the next game tomorrow.
Glenda Johnston, from Carrickfergus in Co Antrim – who was married at Windsor Park five years ago and has not missed a game in almost a decade – said: “I actually cannot believe what happened last night.
“I am so happy. It means so much.”
It is 30 years since Northern Ireland qualified for a major football tournament.
As gushing air stewardesses and burly security guards rushed to have their pictures taken with the players, one veteran squad member remarked: “How times have changed.”
Captain Steven Davis, whose two goals helped secure a place in French finals, said the players were enjoying the limelight.
Speaking at the British Airways check-in desk, he admitted some squad members had only a few hours of sleep.
He said: “It hasn’t really sunk in yet. It was an incredible night. We couldn’t have asked for it to go any better. It is hard to put into words at this moment in time.
“We enjoyed last night – that was important.
“For the boys that have been in the squad for a long time, there have been a lot of difficult times playing for Northern Ireland in terms of getting consistency of results. A few of the younger boys who have been in the squad for a short period of time have only really tasted success.
“It was important to enjoy last night and we did that.”
Chants of “Green Army” rang out as supporters wearing Northern Ireland football tops and waving French tricolours reflected on the game with glee.
Stewart McDonald, from Ballymena – who was at Windsor Park – said: “We are absolutely delighted for this country. The fans deserve it, they have been through so much.
“There were years when we just couldn’t score and now we are qualified for the Euros - it is amazing.
“The celebrations last night were unreal. The police had part of the city centre sealed off and let the fans have a good party - it was a great night.”
Fermanagh man Nigel Tilson, who regrets not going to the 1986 Mexico World Cup, said he was ecstatic with their win.
He said: “I have been waiting for 30 years for this.
“I think in Helsinki it is going to be one big party.”
Jason Stewart, from Co Antrim, was also among the crowds of fans flying to Helsinki for tomorrow’s match.
“The atmosphere last night, before, during and after the game was absolutely brilliant,” he said. “I have never seen so many happy people - everybody was singing and dancing. I didn’t want to go home, to be honest.
“I couldn’t not go to France. I’ll definitely be there.”