Northern Ireland boss O'Neill surprise visit to event honouring tragic fan Darren Rodgers
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill made a surprise appearance at a fundraising event in honour of the supporter who tragically died in France at the Euro 2016 finals.
Talented footballer Darren Rodgers died in Nice in June, only hours after Northern Ireland played their first match.
The 24-year-old from Meadowvale, Ballymena, passed away after an accidental fall over a railing from the Promenade des Anglais.
Tributes from stunned Northern Ireland players poured in for the young Ballymena man and there was a round of applause for him from supporters in the 24th minute of the team's next game against Ukraine in Lyon.
His heartbroken parents, Jacqueline and Paul, were at the Saturday night event at Ballymena's Adair Arms Hotel to raise money for the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust, which helped bring Darren's body home. It was hosted by Jackie Fullerton and organised by Braid United Football Club, whom Darren played for every weekend.
Ballymena native O'Neill (below right) spoke to the crowd who had gathered in their friend's memory and paid a warm tribute to Darren.
"Michael said it was a real pleasure to be there and that it was something he wanted to do as he didn't get to the funeral," said Nathan Selwood, manager of Braid United.
"We contacted him a few weeks ago but he couldn't really commit because of the Northern Ireland game and he also didn't know where he was going to be.
"We were delighted that he could make it. He called in for half an hour, said a few words and answered a few questions."
Northern Ireland shirts, including one from captain Steven Davis, were auctioned at the event. Almost £5,000 was raised for the trust, which helps with the financial hardship of bereaved families repatriating the bodies of loved ones who have died abroad.
"It was a great evening. One of the Northern Ireland jerseys went for £350," added Mr Selwood.
"We had an idea of what we wanted to raise so we were really chuffed at how well it went. Darren's parents were there and other his family members.
"Colin Bell, who set up the trust in memory of his son, Kevin, was also there and he said a few words. We can't thank people enough for donating and making it a successful night.
"I think Michael made the whole evening even more special."
Darren's best friend, Stuart Smyth, said Braid United had wanted to do something special since the tragedy.
"As soon as it happened we wanted to do something good for Darren's memory," said Stuart.
"We also wanted to do something for the charity because they were so good to his parents."