Dear France, Ireland loves you and wants you to win Euro 2016
Our tournament is over, but for Irish fans there is still a team left to support.
Because Ireland loves you, France.
Yes, we've always been very fond of your wine, your stunning countryside, the romance of Paris, but now... now we love you as well.
Coming into this tournament, much of the talk outside of the football was understandably about security.
We were warned it was going to be a "zero-tolerance" approach from the overworked and twitchy French police. "Bring your passport everywhere" they said, "you may be required to produce it at any moment."
There was a genuine feeling that the good vibes of Euro 2012, where the Irish fans won the hearts and minds of the Polish people as effectively as the team lost games on the field, would be replaced with fear and paranoia on the streets of France.
"Terrorism" was the word on the minds of many fans (and their families at home) as they boarded planes to France, even if we were keeping those dark thoughts under wraps.
Which is why what actually happened is such an incredible delight.
Has to be said time & again, French police have been brilliant with Irish fans. Told me - 'ginger but friendly' 😂 pic.twitter.com/rKYKfEt2Zv
— Paddy McKenna (@PaddyMcKenna) June 17, 2016
The Irish fans have unquestionably been wonderful, but only as wonderful as the hosts have allowed us to be.
Everywhere the fans have gone they've been met with warm welcomes, understanding and patience. It's well-documented how creative and funny the Irish fans are with nuns, babies and the opposition fans, but the reception of the hosts has been dramatically at odds with the stereotypical aloof French image.
Place de Clichy
When I first arrived into Place de Clichy in central Paris on the day before Ireland v Sweden, the noise coming from the communion of thousands of boisterous fans on a small, compact French street was jaw-dropping.
My head was spinning, and as I began to record the scenes on my iPhone, I was as intoxicated as the revellers without drinking a drop. It was a heaving play-pen of fans singing, drinking, and the kind of creative mickeying-about that has become the Irish fans' trademark at this tournament.
The games had begun a full 24 hours before kick-off and before long the street was blocked. Traffic in this French suburb full of pubs, restaurants and shops had ground to a halt. For context, imagine the same thing happening in Ranelagh on a busy evening and you won't be far off.
— Paddy McKenna (@PaddyMcKenna) June 12, 2016
Having seen the violence the night before in Marseille, where Russian and English fan fights had to be broken up by riot police, my first thought as I watched the first two exasperated gendarmes arrive on the scene was, "please don't call in the heavies."
The sensible thing would be to close the street, but as the traffic backed up and a few irate drivers began to get out of their cars to speak with the fans, already the French look unprepared for the Irish invasion.
But close the road is exactly what the authorities did and, for the next two days, I witnessed the road become the HQ for Irish and Swedish fan partying. The actions of the authorities meant scenes like this could happen.
— Paddy McKenna (@PaddyMcKenna) June 13, 2016
And the Irish/Swedish sing-song of Abba's 'Dancing Queen', probably my own fan highlight from the Euros, encapsulates everything that is positive about fans partying together, a complete contrast from the actions of those Russian and English fans in other cities which shamed and sickened the French public, fed up with public disorder.
— Paddy McKenna (@PaddyMcKenna) June 13, 2016
Cedric et Benedict
On to to Bordeaux, where I encountered Cedric et Benedict.
Picture the scene...
Bordeaux city centre less than two hours before the Ireland v Belgium kick-off. Thousands of Irish fans are trying to make their way to stadium en masse, a destination which is 30 minutes away by street tram. Those trams are no longer running as the doors are jammed open with the volume of green jerseys squeezing their way into the crammed carriages.
I've left it far too late to go to the stadium and I'm in total panic that I've blown my official match accreditation, which registers as a 'no show' two hours before kick-off.
Desperately, I run away from the mayhem of the trams. One street over a single black jeep is rolling down the road. The female passenger is filming the chaos out of her open window.
"Madame, je suis un journaliste, please take me to the stadium," I plead, waving my UEFA Media Pass in one hand and a €50 note in the other.
"You are Irish?" the woman enquired in halting English.
"Yes!" I replied, now brandishing my passport.
"Get in," her husband brusquely interjects.
— Paddy McKenna (@PaddyMcKenna) June 18, 2016
In the end, Cedric and Benedict (exchanging our names was about as much of either's language we had) wouldn't take the €50, even though they had driven me 25 minutes out of their way to the stadium on the outskirts of Bordeaux.
I made the game, they saved my bacon. Merci.
Before we knew it, our tournament was over. As we waited in Orly Airport to get some information about our cancelled flight home (we'll even forgive you all of those France), a group of French supporters approached JOE's Eoghan Doherty.
He takes up the story...
As I waited, tired and emotional, in the airport's seemingly never-ending customer service queue, a group of eight burly, rugby-loving Frenchmen walked up behind me, spotting my green Ireland jersey from further back in the line.
"Irlande?" I heard a gruff Gallic voice ask.
I turned to look at them. There they stood in a group, with one man out in front, ceremoniously holding a tray with a single cup of espresso on it.
"Oui?" I said. (My French is amazing, obviously.)
The guy with the tray motioned it towards me and replied, "une café. Pour vous. Pour Irlande."
I didn't know what to say.
He lifted the tray and I took the cup. The men behind him all smiled and raised their own drinks to salute me.
I almost cried. I don't even fuckin' drink coffee. I drank that one though. Tastiest thing I had all day.
Just another story of French hospitality amongst the thousands that the Irish supporters have brought back from France.
France, on Sunday, whether you play our English neighbours or Iceland, you will have every Irish supporter behind you.
Sport has healing capacities and, after the year you've had, we understand how hugely significant and special a Euros victory would be .
Football has no regards for just desserts, but it's exactly what you deserve.
ALLEZ LES GARS EN BLEU!