Hundreds attend funeral of fan who died following NI team heroes to France
A clergyman said the family of a young Northern Ireland fan who died in tragic circumstances at the Euro2016 championships in France will "never walk alone".
Rev Mark McConnell was speaking at the funeral and thanksgiving service of Darren Rodgers (24), an electrician from Meadowvale in Ballymena, which was attended by hundreds of people in the town on Saturday.
St Patrick's Church of Ireland was packed to capacity and the congregation included Ballymena-based football commentator Jackie Fullerton.
Darren, known as 'Dar Dar' to his friends, died earlier this month after falling from a seafront promenade in Nice. He had gone there to follow his Northern Ireland heroes.
Poignantly, he was laid to rest just hours before Northern Ireland took on Wales after reaching the last 16 of the tournament.
Rev McConnell said Darren was a fan of Liverpool, and one of their best known anthems was 'You'll Never Walk Alone' which, he said, was a suitable theme for his funeral remarks to Darren's parents Paul and Jacqueline as the community rallies round them.
He said the family had been "walking through a storm" since getting the terrible news that Darren had died in the accident.
The minister said hundreds of sympathy cards had been sent to the family and the packed church was a sign that the community wished to comfort them.
Rev McConnell also revealed the family was able to find out from security footage at the Nice promenade "where Darren had his tragic accident, that he was not alone."
He said: "There were folks there right beside him as his life ended. There were folks who leapt off a bench and ran down from that promenade and on to those rocks and, even though we may never maybe find out who those dear friends were, it is a comfort to know that Darren was not alone."
The minister added: "It is so sad that on a trip of a lifetime to follow the Green and White Army on their adventures in France that Darren's life was cut tragically short.
"It is into this life-changing shocking loss of young life that we try somehow to find crumbs of comfort.
"We don't know what decisions he made that led to him over-balancing and his life ending.
"Sometimes the most small and random decisions have the biggest impact in our lives."
But the clergyman said the Liverpool team anthem talks about a better future, somehow.
Referring to Darren's popularity, the minister continued: "Many of you will know him as good fun. He had a horde of friends who saw him as a bit of a joker, good fun to be about, and a real firm friend."
Darren had even played a prank on his mum, ringing her from France and pretending to have lost his passport, prompting her to make frantic phone calls to the Foreign Office.
Rev McConnell said members of the congregation would each have their own memories of Darren, whether from nursery school and primary school at Ballykeel; Cambridge House Grammar or perhaps his primary school football team which had won the local schools' cup.
Rev McCullough said his parents could not have paid a better tribute to their son when they simply said: "He never gave us any bother".
Darren's teammates from Braid United FC formed a guard of honour as his coffin was borne from the church. His grieving father Paul broke down in the church grounds as he helped to carry the coffin, and was comforted by family and friends.
Among those who attended were Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and Ballymena TUV councillor Tim Gaston, who had also been in France supporting the Northern Ireland team.