With the group stage over, it’s a good time to take a look back at my long-awaited trip to France to support Northern Ireland at Euro 2016. Considering I was only a few months old at the time of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico (the last time we qualified for a major tournament) I was in no mood to let the opportunity go by because a) it may be a once in a lifetime experience and b) if it isn’t, I don’t really want to go to Russia or Qatar. With finances only allowing one game, I chose the second group game, which would be against Ukraine in Lyon.
So I set off on Tuesday 14th June, taking a less-travelled route for Northern Ireland fans, Seville to Lyon, enduring a customary flight delay at the airport on the way. Wednesday was all about exploring the centre of Lyon, and familiarising myself with the area. The geography of Lyon is pretty interesting, it being built around the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône. The oldest part of the city is on the west bank of the Saône, while the city centre is located on the presqu’île or peninsula between the two. East of the Rhône is the most modern part of the city, and where the majority of the population live.
As this was my first experience of being in a country hosting a tournament (not counting a school trip to the north of England during Euro 96, miles away from any matches), it was genuinely surprising to see just how many fans of different nations were wandering about the centre of Lyon.
Aside from the expected large numbers of Northern Ireland and Ukraine fans, there were plenty of people sporting the shirts of England, Wales, Portugal, Iceland, Switzerland, Croatia, Romania, Albania and more besides.
In contrast to some of the headlines from the first weekend of the tournament, there was no trouble at all. Just fans of all countries mixing and sharing the big tournament atmosphere.
On Wednesday afternoon, a large group of NI fans set up base in Place Antonin Poncet, located close to the fanzone at Bellecour and turned it into a sea of green shirts, warming up for the following day with their wide repertoire of songs, including the now-infamous Will Grigg one. My first attempt at watching a game in the main fanzone didn’t go as planned, huge queues ahead of the France v Albania game led to me reconsidering and heading back towards where I was staying, eventually settling in a bar packed-out with locals, which exploded with noise when Griezmann and Payet scored their late goals.
Thursday was match day and started with a visit to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, which overlooks the city from the hill on the western bank of the river Saône. Quite a few fans of both teams had decided to make the same trip and to my mind, there’s no better way to start a match day than with superb panoramic views of a beautiful city like this.
Back into the centre then, where I finally met up with people and headed to the fanzone for the first half of England-Wales. Not much happened until we made the decision to head for the stadium for our game and left the fanzone, at which point Bale scored to put the Welsh in front. Ah well…
The new stadium, variously called the Grande Stade, Stade des Lumières or Parc Olympique Lyonnais (this seems to be the official title, hence its use in the title) is not located in Lyon itself, but in the suburb of Décines-Charpieu, a good 10km outside the city. Fortunately it is easily accessible by Tram from Gare Part-Dieu station, which was free on the day of the match. The journey, as you’d expect, was enlivened by the presence of so many other NI fans and the constant singing (though I’m not sure doing the ‘bouncy’ on a tram is the best idea ever).
With it being such a new development, there’s not much to do around the stadium, whatever is there for Lyon home games had largely been replaced with official UEFA tournament merchandise, so the best thing to do was head to my seat in the ground. Up in the top corner with a perfect view of the pitch (anything less and I’d have been annoyed, considering the price of the ticket), I enjoyed the pre-match singalong of Sweet Caroline, as the Green and White Army made it feel like (a slightly larger) Windsor Park. Not as welcome was the cringe-inducing ‘kiss cam’ which the pitchside host kept inflicting on unsuspecting members of the crowd. After the ‘match opening ceremony’ featuring giant replicas of the teams’ shirts and some dancing, the teams finally arrived, we had the anthems and finally the game was ready to go.
The first half was a bit of a slow-burner. NI manager Michael O’Neill had sprung a major surprise prior to the game by dropping Kyle Lafferty to the bench but that and his other changes had paid dividends as NI looked more comfortable than in the edgy opening game against Poland. There weren’t many chances, but it was definitely more encouraging.
I’d said before the game that the very least I wanted was a “moment” – such as taking the lead, scoring a late equaliser, just anything which would live on in the memories of everyone present. The Poland game hadn’t provided one, neither had the first half in Lyon, but with the rain becoming torrential four minutes into the second half, we got what we’d came for. Northern Ireland were awarded a free kick on the left hand side, Oliver Norwood swung it in deep and Gareth McAuley got up above his marker to power it home. Cue pandemonium and the loudest rendition of “Ooooh Gareth McAuley” ever heard. Bet it still didn’t compare to the time he won the Irish Cup with Coleraine though…
The weather continued to worsen, with a hail shower actually leading to the players being taken off the pitch for a few minutes. When play resumed, Michael McGovern made a smart save to deny Yarmolenko. Ukraine were largely limited to speculative long shots but even so, when the fourth official signalled that there would be six minutes of additional time, my heart sank. Yet there was no need for it to. In the last minute of the game, sub striker Josh Magennis skinned a defender out wide and instead of holding it in the corner as most fans were urging him to do, he cut the ball back to Stuart Dallas whose shot was parried by Pyatov, right into the path of Niall McGinn who hammered home from close range. Pandemonium part II. And this time it was over, meaning Northern Ireland had won a game at an international tournament for the first time since that game against Spain in 1982. You may have heard about it a bit.
The celebrations went on long into the night, well some of us had waited a lifetime for this. Good times never seemed so good!
Friday was a bit more subdued and featured some more exploration of the old town, including the city’s traboules, hidden passageways which cut through houses, and sometimes even whole streets. These were originally used by the residents to fetch water from the river and later, as trade boomed, to transport goods. Nowadays they are open for the public to explore, though as they go through private residences, you have to be quiet and respect the privacy of the inhabitants.
I also took time to visit the Football-themed exhibition at the city’s Musée Gadagne, where I learned that in Lyon’s old ground, the Stade de Gerland and the new ground, home fans are unofficially banned from wearing green, the main colour of arch-rivals St. Etienne. Just as well Northern Ireland were officially the ‘away’ team for the match!