EURO 2016: Green and White Army have done Northern Ireland proud, and they will be out in force again in Paris...

Northern Ireland fans have earned plenty of praise in France
Northern Ireland fans have earned plenty of praise in France

Win or lose in Paris on Saturday, Northern Ireland can hold their heads high for their heroics at Euro 2016.

Against all odds, Michael O’Neill’s men escaped from their qualifying group as one of four best third-place finishers.

It has set up Saturday evening’s titanic last 16 showdown with Wales at the Parc des Princes, allowing fans of both nations to dream of reaching the quarter-finals – and a clash with either Hungary or Belgium.

The Green and White Army will be as vocal as ever in Paris this evening.

They have carried Northern Ireland’s reputation with charm and dignity in France, adding colour and noise to the carnival atmosphere.

Fans’ chief Gary McAllister admits it has been “no surprise” to see the Green and White Army earn praise and plaudits from the football world.

Gary Lineker, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thierry Henry are just some of the stars who doffed their caps to Northern Ireland’s support.

It has been an enduring feel-good story at the Euros, but one that was tinged with sadness following the tragic deaths of Darren Rodgers and Robert ‘Archie’ Rainey.

Darren died after falling over a railing in an accident hours after his team’s match against Poland.

Robert, affectionately known as Archie, suffered a heart attack in one of the stands during the second group game against Ukraine.

“It has been a roller coaster of emotions during this trip,” McAllister said.

“We obviously had the tragic death of Darren in Nice, and then we also lost Archie in Lyon.

“First and foremost our thoughts are with their families and friends. We will never forget Darren or Archie.”

McAllister admits Northern Ireland’s supporters have immersed themselves in the Euros experience.

“I think the majority of fans have enjoyed it. Northern Ireland obviously haven’t been at a major tournament in 30 years so this is a new experience for many supporters.

“But the fans have come out and enjoyed themselves, and they have been warmly welcomed in the bars and restaurants everywhere they have been.

“The locals have been singing Northern Ireland songs and getting pictures taken.

“I always knew how good our fans were. They have always made friends, no matter where they have travelled to support the team.

“Obviously the Euros has put them centre stage at a massive tournament, and they have rightly earned the praise of many people.”

The start of Euro 2016 was marred by the toxic violence witnessed in Marseille when English and Russian fans clashed.

Images of flying chairs and snarling faces, with grown men lying prone on the street with bottles cascading around them, did little to promote the beautiful game.

They were scenes that shamed football, and threatened to tarnish the reputation of the sport – and every fan.

Thankfully, the brutal scenes of Marseille seemed a million miles away from the relaxed atmosphere that was enjoyed by the majority of fans at the tournament.

Comforting pictures of supporters freely mixing and enjoying the Euros experience went some way to stitching the wounds of Marseille.

Northern Ireland supporters shared drinks and songs with their Polish counterparts ahead of their opening group game in Nice.

The same joviality was witnessed before, during and after the games with Ukraine and Germany.

The same vibrancy and verve can be expected throughout today as the Green and White Army prepare for Wales at the Parc des Princes.

“We had one moment in Nice when some local thugs attacked us and the Polish fans, but thankfully it was sorted quickly,” McAllister added.

“Apart from that it has been a great experience for the fans.

“Saturday promises to be special. I think there is in the region of 4-5,000 fans who have tickets, but then there are so many more trying to get to Paris.

“A lot of fans went home after the Germany game and many of them are trying to get back again.

“The flights are proving very expensive, and some supporters are struggling. But many are doing all they can to make it for the game.”

McAllister was due to fly home last night, but after reaching the last 16 he is now staying for tonight’s game against Wales before returning to Northern Ireland tomorrow.

“I made plans to stay on if we reached the last 16, so I am due to fly home on Sunday now,” he said.

“Saturday is a massive game for both nations, and both will fancy their chances of winning.

“I just think we have a great opportunity to progress. Wales do have Gareth Bale who is world class, but we have contained some big-name players already in this tournament, so hopefully we can do it again.

“If we progress I will have to see if I can make it to the quarter-finals. But we have to get past Wales first.”