Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Northern Ireland Pole-axed on Riviera but the dream remains alive

Green day: Carnival atmosphere on streets of Nice as NI fans do country proud despite disappointing loss

By Adrian Rutherford

In the searing heat of the afternoon they walked as one, a sea of green, taking the final steps on a journey 30 years in the making.

The near-10,000 in Nice yesterday had come to bear witness to a moment of history for Northern Ireland football.

And as a proud Steven Davis led his country out at the start of their Euro 2016 adventure, they joined together again, forming a wall of noise and colour which provided a wonderful spectacle on this day of dreams on the French Riviera.

The only thing missing, of course, was the result.

Their opening game in France did not produce the perfect ending the special occasion demanded.

Northern Ireland slipped to a 1-0 defeat, which leaves Michael O'Neill's side with a sizeable task to make the next round.

But however short their stay in France, what an experience this has been for the thousands of fans who have made the journey.

After the carnage on the streets of Marseilles the previous night, to be in Nice yesterday was to see the football family at its very best.

Polish and Northern Irish fans mingled on the streets, some later making the journey to the stadium together.

One was even there for a match of a different kind - Ian Morton proposed to fiancee Rachel. She said 'oui'.

This was Northern Ireland's first match at a major tournament for a generation, coming 30 years after their 1986 World Cup adventure.

And no one wanted to miss the party.

The final wave of supporters had flown in yesterday morning, further swelling the ranks.

Among them was First Minister Arlene Foster, sporting the team colours in a green dress, who tweeted a photograph of herself clutching a Northern Ireland shirt with 'Foster' on the back.

She and boxer Carl Frampton mingled with supporters around the Fontaine du Soleil in the centre of town.

In the surrounding area, the great Green and White takeover of Nice saw the streets lined with supporters.

Fans spilled out of bars and cafes, almost blocking off the road which runs past Ma Nolan's Irish bar, one of their main rallying points.

At one stage, an irate local driver, struggling to get through the crowd, was offered a Northern Ireland flag and an invitation to join the party.

By mid-afternoon, fans began melting away from the centre of town for the final journey to the stadium.

The Allianz Riviera, renamed the Stade de Nice for the tournament, is a compact venue, set amid hillsides around 10km to the west of the city.

Shuttle buses ferried the supporters to a stop around half a mile from the ground.

Rival fans mingled as they set out on the final leg of the journey on foot.

There was singing and photographs were taken together.

And when it was time to say goodbye, there were handshakes and good luck messages.

As the stadium neared, the crowd of Northern Ireland fans massed into one, turning the approach road into a river of green and white. Inside they occupied a large corner section, flowing into two of the stands, with many more dotted in other parts of the arena.

Large swathes of the red and white patterned seats turned green as the countdown to kick-off drew closer.

With half an hour to go, the sounds of Sweet Caroline, one of the Northern Ireland fans' favourite call to arms, echoed around the ground.

"Good times never seemed so good," they sang.

Few could argue with that yesterday. A group of about 160 dancers, half of them dressed in green, took part in a short pre-match show.

Two giant jerseys representing both teams were unfurled on the pitch. Moments later the teams emerged, Northern Ireland led out by their inspirational captain Davis.

The bond between the fans extended to the pre-game formalities, with some Polish supporters applauding the Northern Ireland anthem. Finally it was time for the football.

The 0-0 half-time score would have been more favourably received by the Northern Ireland fans after an opening period dominated by Poland.

As the match entered the second half, O'Neill's side chased and harried and blocked.

They battled valiantly in their efforts to resist a fine Poland side, but could not quite finish the job. Arkadiusz Milik, a striker with Dutch club Ajax, scored the winner in the 51st minute.

The goal did little to quell the noise of the Northern Ireland fans. Indeed it seemed to raise it to a new level.

At the final whistle, their singing more than matched the victory cheers of the army of Polish supporters.

Whatever Northern Ireland go on to achieve over the next eight days, and it's not over yet, however disappointing this result, they have been one of the stories of the tournament.

Last night the Green and White Army were preparing to decamp from the heat of Nice.

They are marching north, headed for Lyon, France's cultural capital, where the journey continues this week.

Belfast Telegraph