Euphoria, pride and disbelief – just three of the emotions voiced by jubilant Northern Ireland fans on Thursday night in the wake of the team’s historic Euro victory.
Fans, footballing figures and political leaders all voiced their joy following the 3-1 defeat of Greece at Windsor Park, which guaranteed the squad their first-ever place at the European Championships next summer in France.
Prime Minister David Cameron offered “huge congratulations” to the team in the wake of the win, while Kate Hoey, Northern Ireland-born former Labour sports minister, declared herself “so proud of our wee country”.
First Minister Peter Robinson called it a “tremendous result and achievement”, while his deputy Martin McGuinness congratulated both Northern Ireland and the Republic (who beat world champions Germany 1-0 in Dublin).
Gary McAllister, 38-year-old Belfast-based chairman of the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs, said at midnight, over two hours after the victory: “It’s only just beginning to sink in now. As someone who’s been going for quite a long time to watch Northern Ireland, through highs and lows, I honestly didn’t think in my lifetime that it was realistic we’d see this happen.
“I think it’s tremendous – not just for Northern Ireland football, but for the country.”
Barely audible over the ecstatic hubbub and the singing of the crowd, Jim Boyce, honorary life president of the Irish Football Association (and former Fifa vice president), told the News Letter: “I’m obviously very proud. I think it’s marvellous for the fans, and I think [manager] Michael O’Neill and the whole team deserve the highest praise.
“It’s been the best atmosphere I’ve seen for many’s a long year. It’s a complete party atmosphere. It’s the biggest achievement obviously since 1986 when we qualified for the World Cup finals!”
Darren Bisby-Boyd, a 34-year-old Newtownabbey man, now living in Peterborough, told the News Letter that the victory will be a milestone in his life.
He is part of the Northern Ireland Worldwide Supporters Club, which has followers as far away as Italy, Thailand and New Zealand, and said: “We couldn’t have dreamed this. Michael O’Neill should be given the freedom of Belfast after this!”
He added: “It’s one of those moments you’ll look back on in your life and you’ll go: I was there when I saw Northern Ireland qualify.
“I can’t remember [the World Cup] in 1986, because I was only five at the time.
“But realistically this was one of those moments that you tell your grandchildren about.
“For me to experience that tonight was one thing I don’t think I’m ever going to forget.”
Asked to sum up the mood, he likened the event to getting married or having children.
He said: “I’d just say it’s euphoria. For the lads it’s like all their Christmases have come at once.”
David Shields, 32 and from Dromore in Co Down, said: “We’d never believed it was going to happen. We’ve got slaughtered in matches we thought we’d win. It’s unbelievable. It’s a total turnaround.”
The result will also have made one happy couple happier still. Stephen Rodgers wed his new wife Alison on Thursday, and the Carrickfergus couple had set up a big screen at their reception to show the game.
The groom told the BBC: “At half-time we’ll have our first dance. Then the second half of the match, and then – just party the rest of the night!”
Prior to the match, MLAs at Stormont had voted unanimously to give their support to the squad.
William Humphrey, DUP MLA for North Belfast, tabled the motion at Stormont’s sport committee congratulating Northern Ireland on their success to date, and bidding them good luck.
Sinn Fein then proposed an amendment which would have jointly offered their best wishes to the Republic too.
In the end, a separate motion was tabled wishing both the Republic and Scotland good luck, and this – like the Northern Ireland motion – also passed unanimously.
In the end, of course, no luck was required.