Euro 2016: Irish team returns home, hailing ‘incredible journey’
Captain Robbie Keane pays emotional tribute to players who ‘gave their heart and soul’
Robbie Keane has paid an emotional tribute to Irish fans in what may be last act as Irish team captain.
Keane and the rest of the Irish squad greeted several hundred fans who turned up at Dublin Airport to meet them.
Keane only made a single substitute appearance in Euro 2016, but Ireland’s top scorer confessed he had tears in his eyes when he considered the efforts of the players during the tournament.
“I’m a very, very proud Irishman today. Thank you for the bottom of my heart and from the bottom of the players’ hearts and the journey is only beginning with these young players.”
Euro 2016 which saw the team get to the last 16 only to lose to hosts France, had been an “incredible journey” he told the assembled fans.
He expressed regret that they had not gone further until a woman shouted from the crowd: “You’re still legends”.
Keane responded: “It’s been very emotional. The players gave their heart and soul to this competition.
“I couldn’t have asked for better players. These players are desperate to do well by their country. They’ve done that.”
The players arrived in from Lyon on a chartered flight shortly after 3 pm.
Minister for Sports Shane Ross said the whole nation was proud of the team and the night in Lille in which Ireland won 1-0 was a “JFK moment. My grandchildren were with me and they will never forget it for the rest of their lives. You have brought the name of Ireland an enormous amount of credit overseas”.
Mr Ross said the Irish fans had enjoyed themselves in an “incredibly civilised way”.
The behaviour of the Irish fans and teams would bring many visitors to Ireland from France which would be needed after the shock of Brexit.
FAI chief executive John Delaney said the team would inspire a new generation of footballers. “It is for the kids of today to see them want to play for the country, that’s the real thing for me.”
He referenced 1916 and said Roger Casement, James Connolly and Patrick Pearse had fought for the tricolour which had been displayed with such pride on the “playing fields of France”. The supporters were the “best ambassadors Ireland ever had”.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill praised the commitment of the players. They had been “unbelievable” and had given every single ounce of energy on the pitch.
Jeff Hendrick described the tournament as “the best five weeks of my career”. Most of the players were not staying in Ireland but flying back to their families in England after six weeks away.