Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland fans keep the faith ahead of Ukraine clash

By Adrian Rutherford

The Euro 2016 party has moved north, and as dusk fell on the streets of Lyon's old town, the Green and White Army arrived in force.

The great French invasion has increased significantly for Northern Ireland's date with destiny against Ukraine.

An opening loss to Poland means it is probably win or bust for Michael O'Neill's side today.

France's second city was a resistance stronghold during the Second World War, and O'Neill needs to summon similar defiance from his players.

And the fans are rolling into town as they seek to keep the dream alive.

More Northern Ireland supporters are expected in Lyon than anywhere else on the team's Euro adventure.

Among those heading to the game is Thomas Toman.

He arrived in France last Tuesday and spent the past week in Nice before travelling to Lyon for the match.

"The atmosphere has been fantastic - we're a bit loud and we get a bit drunk, but it's all good fun," he said.

On today's game, Thomas added: "We've got to win, so hopefully we play a bit more offensively. We need a big game from Kyle Lafferty. The least we can hope for is a goal to cheer."

Yesterday morning, fans were filing through Nice train station, boarding trains for the 300-mile trip north.

They included Whitey Anderson, the outgoing manager of Irish League club Ballinamallard United.

He is in France for the duration of Northern Ireland's campaign, and will also be at Tuesday's tie against Germany in Paris.

Fans were arriving at Lyon's Part-Dieu station throughout the day.

The sun-bathed square outside, in the heart of the city's bustling business district, was filled with Northern Ireland tops.

Jack Wilgar and Catherine Boal had travelled for nearly 24 hours from their homes in Bangor to get here.

"We left Northern Ireland at 4pm yesterday and have been travelling non-stop," explained Catherine.

"We got a plane from Belfast to Gatwick, then a train to London Victoria and a bus all the way to Lyon.

"It has been a long journey but it's a lot cheaper than flying."

Jack has been following the team since he was nine.

"The 17-hour bus journey was grim at the time, but it's worth it to be here," he said.

"I remember losing to the likes of Luxembourg and some ridiculous sides. I never actually thought we'd make it to a tournament like this."

Josh Coulter, from Fivemiletown, and his friends David George, Timothy Irwin, Stuart Erskine, Harry Hobson and Alan Stewart arrived on a flight from Dublin to Paris.

They then got the train from the capital to Lyon.

"We are on the road since 4am this morning, so it's been a long day," said Josh.

"The plane was full of Northern Ireland people. There were chants and it was good craic."

He believes O'Neill's men have what it takes to beat Ukraine.

"I think we'll win, I'll go for 2-0," he said.

"Hopefully, we will play a bit more adventurously. It's a must-win game, so we should just really go for it."

O'Conway's Irish bar, just beside the station entrance, was a stop-off for many fans seeking some refreshment and a break from the 23C heat. Carrie Church and Matthew Clarke were among a group from the North Coast Northern Ireland Supporters' Club.

The club comprises 85 members, and around 70 have travelled to France.

Carrie arrived in France on Friday via Barcelona, while Matthew had to wait until Sunday as he was attending a friend's wedding in Manchester.

"We've had a brilliant time - the Polish fans and Northern Ireland fans got on so well in Nice, now we're looking forward to making friends with the Ukrainians," said Carrie.

"I've been following Northern Ireland for 28 years and never in a million years thought I'd see a day like this."

Matthew added: "All we want is a goal to cheer and celebrate. But it would be great to get a win tomorrow and keep it going to the last game and give us something to play for."

Carrie explained: "At the end of the day, our celebration is getting this far. Anything else is just a bonus."

Fans were last night acquainting themselves with Lyon, a sprawling city home to around 500,000 people.

Meanwhile, a frustrated group of supporters had to sleep on the beach in France after their train was cancelled.

Kyle Morton (28), from Belfast, and five Ulster University friends planned to leave Nice at teatime on Tuesday for Lyon.

But the service was cancelled following industrial action by railway workers.

With no accommodation in Nice, Mr Morton and his friends trawled the bars and kebab shops of the Mediterranean sunspot, having sing-offs with Polish and German supporters into the small hours, before settling down on the pebble beach.

Mr Morton said: "It is all part of the big adventure, but we just thought France would be a lot more organised."

Belfast Telegraph