Euro 2016: ‘St Fergal’ flies North’s fans to French Riviera

Between 25,000 and 40,000 fans have followed Michael O’Neill’s side to tournament

Having defied the odds in winning their qualification group, Northern Ireland find themselves with a tough draw in Euro 2016, is this where the fairytale ends or can they carry on their excellent form? Emmet Malone reports.

 

We flew from Dublin into Nice, on the Côte d’Azur in France, on an Aer Lingus Airbus, the St Fergal, a saint who, back in 753 AD or thereabouts, made an evangelising impact on Europe.

Here was the vanguard of Northern Ireland supporters from the Shankill in Belfast, Lisburn, Derry and numerous other parts of the six counties hoping manager Michael O’Neill’s green-and-white army would to do the same in tomorrow evening’s group C game against Poland (and, of course, later against Ukraine and Germany).

The cabin crew, and some of the non-aligned passengers, were a little bemused by the singing and chanting of “We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland”, “It’s the Ulster boys making all the noise, everywhere we go”, and “Sweet Caroline” – which for some reason is one of the supporters’ anthems – that began 20 minutes before the aircraft touched down.

Polish captain

It may be bad manners to puncture high expectations, but what of a certain Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich, striker and captain of the Polish national team, who will be awaiting O’Neill’s team in Nice?

The cohort of 25,000-40,000 fans flying and motoring into France knew of the fearsome striker, as do the Republic’s supporters, given his goals condemned their side to the trauma of a play-off to make it to France – as opposed to the North, who topped their group, as some of the fans here will quietly remind you.

Paul Alexander, from Lisburn, questioned if Lewandowski had heard of Northern Ireland’s Premier League back four of Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Paddy McNair and Craig Cathcart?

Or their forwards, Kyle Lafferty and Will Grigg, the Wigan player who qualified for the North under the granny rule and whose 28 goals for his club, inspired the chant “Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified”, based on the Gala hit, Freed from Desire.

Football for all

Alexander (47) is secretary of Hillsborough boys’ football club, which subscribes to the Northern Ireland “football for all” maxim.

“We are here to support our country,” he said. “I don’t think we are the underdogs that some people think we are.”

He said qualification had “cheered up the place” and “brought everybody together”. “I am a Northern Ireland supporter but I want the Republic of Ireland to do well as well. Times have changed: it’s not like it used to be,” he said, adding: “But when it comes to the crunch we are the better side.”

His friend Denis Campbell, who is also involved with the Hillsborough team, is 38 and has been “around the world” to follow the North.

“The team spirit is unbreakable in Northern Ireland. We have no superstars but as a team we are a unit, we are together, we are one,” Campbell said.

Relaxed mood

It’s a nervous and exciting time ahead of tomorrow evening’s kick-off at the 35,000- seater Stade de Nice. While there is a general anxiety about terrorist attacks, the mood in Nice is relaxed. There is security but nothing ubiquitous, and certainly nothing like what Northern Ireland fans who experienced the Troubles were used to.

Rodney and Jude Cardwell, from Lurgan, Co Armagh, seemed happy to have landed in the city.

“It is stunning, just the atmosphere and the scenery, it is just beautiful,” said Jude.

Rodney too was enjoying the panorama too, but his focus was on tomorrow evening.

“Northern Ireland will play with their hearts. They go into the tournament with a 12-game unbeaten run. We have nothing to fear.”

It has been confirmed that Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is to attend the North’s final group game against Germany in Paris on Tuesday week. He will attend the Republic’s final group game against Italy the following night in lille.

Mr McGuinness previously has said he will follow any “team in green” but that if it came to a crunch Republic versus the North game he would support the Republic. DUP First Minister Arlene Foster is to attend the Poland match.