Green and White Army hail their soccer heroes in Lyon
Even thunderclaps could not compete with the roar when Northern Ireland scored
Gareth McAuley is mobbed by teammates after scoring his side’s first goal against Ukraine in Lyon. Photograph: PA
The referee stopped the game briefly because of the hail storm and lightning that flashed over the Olympique Lyonnais stadium yesterday evening. But even thunderclaps could not compete with the sound that filled the air when Gareth McAuley scored the opening goal in Northern Ireland’s momentous victory over Ukraine – their first win at Euro 2016.
Being in the centre of ecstatic Green and White Army fans in such circumstances is like being at the eye of a storm. “Everywhere we go, it’s the Ulster boys making all the noise, everywhere we go,” sang the supporters.
And the fans obviously are psychic. About a minute before the goal they were chanting “go Gareth McAuley, go Gareth McAuley”. And when his opportunity came, the defender made the most of it – leading to cheers that could well have been heard back in his home town of Larne.
After the goal came an inevitable period of tension as Ukrainians launched an onslaught which produced more than a few heart-stopping moments among the North’s fans. But Michael O’Neill’s side did better than hold out – they doubled their advantage.
In the dying moments of the game, Niall McGinn struck like the lightning that was still occasionally brightening the sky above. Another cacophony of sound ensued.
The North’s team wore black armbands in memory of Darren Rodgers, who died when he fell off the promenade in Nice after last week’s game against Poland.
Some fans also wore jerseys inscribed with his nickname, “Dar Dar”, and the crowd engaged in a minute’s applause at the 24th minute, reflecting the age of the Ballymena man.
The supporters, apart from travelling from Northern Ireland and other parts of the globe, had something of an arduous trek getting to the Lyon stadium.
The French authorities seem to enjoy erecting football stadiums as far from the host city as possible.
In Nice, the North’s fans had to make a 10km journey from the stadium after a defeat to Poland. This increased to some 15km in Lyon but nobody appeared to be too put out by the return journey last night.
First Minister Arlene Foster attended the game against Poland in Nice while Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will attend Tuesday’s game against Germany in Paris (as well as the Republic’s game against Italy the next day).
Among other politicians who have made their way to the Euros is Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy, who travelled with his sons Stephen and Philip for the Ukraine game.
“It’s been terrific. There is a big feelgood factor and that is right across the entire community. We’ve been enjoying the atmosphere, the fans mingling with each other, and that’s the way football and sport should be,” he said. “We travelled through Dublin Airport and got a very welcoming reception, and it was great to see.”
There must also be a shortage of political stories back in Belfast with the glut of political press officers who have travelled to the Euros, with unionists rooting for the North and Sinn Féiners for the Republic.
“I think at a push there might be one or two press officers left in Belfast, but that’s about it,” said Alliance head of press Scott Jamison, who is firmly in the Northern Ireland camp.
“If you’d said to me a couple of years ago I would be following my country around a major international tournament I would not have believed you.”
Among the many songs fans were singing as they floated back to Lyon yesterday evening was “que sera sera, what ever will be will be, we’re going to gay Paree, que sera sera”.
Roll on Tuesday and Germany in Paris, as far as the Northern fans are concerned. Who knows what will be.