In restaurants, on the Metro, in the stands, the (Northern) Irish were unbeatable. They sang everywhere, all the time. A mix of contagious high spirits, irony and most of all lots of self-effacement they lit up the Parc Olympique Lyonnais on Thursday after having already given it all in the streets of the city. If you can sing, “Nous ne sommes pas le Brésil, nous sommes l’Irlande du nord, mais c’est pareil pour moi” that gives you the tone of their typically British humour.
Le Progrès, Lyon’s regional newspaper
September 8 2007. Northern Ireland lose one goal to nil against Latvia in a World Cup 2008 qualifier after a Chris Baird own goal. The team was in a good position to secure its first major tournament appearance in 22 years before Lawrie Sanchez left to manage Fulham midway through the campaign. His replacement Nigel Worthington slammed the side’s lack of quality and effort, promising to make changes.
Gareth McAuley, an unused replacement against Latvia, was dropped out of the squad for the game against Iceland the following week. Another defeat. Another own goal. This time from Keith Gillespie, it sealed a two goal to one victory for the Nordic islanders. Disconsolate and unappreciated McAuley considered his international future and a player who has become something of a spiritual leader may have been lost to the international side for good.
The rest as they say?
Now a seasoned international, the commanding West Bromwich Albion centre half, has had quite a career since leaving Coleraine in 2004. The Larne man has gained over 60 caps, thriving on attacking set pieces. For the fans, who have followed his career from a first B team call up in 2003 and those who have been travelling with the team for many years before that, the Euros are a thoroughly deserved and welcome reward.
With all roads leading the Green and White Army to Paris, Michael O’Neill and his squad have already exceeded expectations. Over and over again. The dream will eventually come to an end but the memories of the win over Ukraine will feed on the comparisons between Spain in 82, Healy’s goal against England and Lyon in 2016.
Singing in the rain
For their first success in the Euro’s, Northern Ireland dominated a weak Ukraine under a deluge. To the joy of their thousands of singing fans.
Read the subhead of L’Equipe, France’s daily football paper. Though Tourism Ireland may not be thrilled by its weather report.
The hail even forced the referee to interrupt the proceedings for a little more than two minutes after an hour of play to the great astonishment of the Northern Irish, used to playing in the drum of a washing machine.
In the sunshine of Nice, it was all so different. After the narrow but lacklustre defeat to Poland, Mathieu Gregoire’s colourful report in L’Equipe poured scorn on O’Neill’s tactical setup.
McGovern in nets, McLaughlin on the right, McAuley in the middle, McNair who rode in front of a five man defence: Northern Ireland offered a McBus to their Polish opposition, a meal that almost remained undigested in their stomachs.
Pulling no punches, Gregoire appeared to sympathise with the plight of Kyle Lafferty isolated against Poland’s back four.
In attack, Kyle Lafferty, like Tom Hanks on his island, was abandoned by the world and he didn’t even have a ball to hold onto.
While the first half against Ukraine lacked goalmouth action, the “incessant pressing” of Conor Washington laid down a marker and unsettled the eastern Europeans.
Indeed, L’Equipe added that the only moment of note from the opening 45 minutes was the minute of applause for Darren Rodgers. Le Progrès wrote:
In the first half there was greater action in the stands than on the pitch. The minute of applause in the 24th minute in memory of the 24 year old supporter who died in Nice was both moving and joyful.
The death of Robert Rainey, 62, who collapsed while watching the match in Lyon, will also be marked on Tuesday night. As the Northern Ireland fans and players have been united by tragedy, so too were fans north and south of the border. Republic of Ireland supporters graciously sang Stand up for the Ulsterman during their match against Sweden. Of their fans’ many contributions to the tournament’s atmosphere, that may be the one with the greatest lasting significance.
For the Republic, the maths is simple, win or go home. For Northern Ireland, the next few days will see calculators and abacuses mashed to pieces as every goal scored and conceded can affect the goal difference. However, just one point against the world champions and it will all be academic. A clash with England or France would lie in wait.
The lions of Lyon will enter the Parc des Princes tomorrow evening with the headlines ready to write themselves. But just as McAuley resisted giving an instant analysis of his goal’s place in history, the full story of Northern Ireland at the Euros is yet to be written. The only certainty is that in victory or defeat the Green and White Army will not leave the stage quietly.
“Football is a romantic game and sometimes the underdogs come through,” wished the man who almost walked away nine years ago as the rain continued to fall on the pitch at Lyon.
As ever, we live in hope, not in expectation.