Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Despite Northern Ireland's euphoria, there is more to life than a football result

By Adrian Rutherford

The dream continues for the Green and White Army - but it was another day tinged with desperate sadness.

We should have been hailing Michael O'Neill's Kings of Lyon and the army of fans who cheered them to a first tournament win for 34 years.

Instead it was news of another tragedy that overshadowed everything.

Northern Ireland beat Ukraine at a raucous and rain-lashed Stade de Lyon, which gives them a wonderful chance of continuing their Euro 2016 journey.

Goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn secured the win, but it was a day measured by further heartache, with news of a Northern Ireland fan dying in the stands while watching the game.

Shocked supporters who saw the tragedy unfold left scarves and flags after the match.

It came after fans paid a moving tribute to Darren Rodgers (below), who fell to his death after the game against Poland on Sunday.

While there was euphoria at the win, which keeps everyone dreaming, on this day of all days supporters were mindful that there are some things a great deal more important than a football score.

The players wore black armbands in memory of Darren, while fans' banners in the stand remembered their lost brother.

One read: "Darren Rodgers, remembered by the GAWA".

In the 24th minute - in reference to the 24-year-old's age - they united to remember him.

A chant of "There's only one Darren Rodgers" was followed by warm and loud applause from the banks of supporters.

A lifelong Northern Ireland supporter, Darren would have been so proud of the team yesterday and of the fans who again turned the streets green.

Having packed out Nice for the opening game against Poland, they were here in even greater numbers. At least 16,000 made the journey for the game.

Place Bellecour, the massive pedestrianised public square close to the river, was the main gathering point.

Fans spilled on to the neighbouring streets in a sea of noise and colour. Chants of "We're the Ulster Boys", "Green And White Army" and "Will Grigg's On Fire" echoed through the streets.

Inside the ground, Northern Ireland fans outnumbered their Ukrainian counterparts, clad in bright yellow and blue, by around three to one.

As was the case on Sunday, it was 0-0 at half-time, but it was a much-improved opening 45 minutes from Northern Ireland.

The more purposeful display was certainly met with approval from the supporters.

After five minutes the large group of fans who turned one side of the vast stadium green had the place jumping - literally - as they performed a mass bouncey.

The day had started with sunshine, but 10 minutes in the heavens opened, sending some of the Ukraine fans in their sparsely populated end scuttling for shelter.

Another downpour heralded the start of the second half, but soon McAuley had the supporters singing in the rain.

Oliver Norwood crossed from the left and the veteran West Brom defender met it sweetly, scoring with a superb header - 1-0 Northern Ireland.

Sprinting away to celebrate, McAuley was chased and then mobbed by his jubilant team-mates.

In the stands, the noise level was raised even higher.

It was Northern Ireland's first ever goal at a European Championships - an "I was there" moment.

The minutes ticked down slowly, but the win was sealed by a late goal from Niall McGinn.

It was a special moment for the 28-year-old from Donaghmore, who gave up a GAA career to pursue his dreams of playing top-level football.

Northern Ireland's last win at a major tournament came against Spain in the 1982 World Cup. The hero of that game, Gerry Armstrong, was there to see a new set of players become legends of Northern Irish football.

"I am very, very proud of the boys and how they performed," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Their attitude was unbelievable. They totally took the game to them from the first minute. We deserved to win and I'm so pleased I was here to see it."

Former Northern Ireland midfielder Keith Gillespie also hailed an "absolutely incredible performance".

He said: "We totally deserved it. Each player out there was absolutely magnificent.

"We've waited a long time for a day like this but we've arrived at this tournament."

Defender Jonny Evans, meanwhile, celebrated with a proud young fan - his little daughter Lottie.

The result also had DJ and football presenter Colin Murray celebrating. Before heading for a night on the town, he said: "I was sitting right on the corner of the entire Green and White Army and it was indescribable the support they gave tonight. We're going to Gay Paris and hopefully we're not going home."

The mood was also buoyant among fans leaving the stadium.

Colin Green, whose family are from Limavady, said it was an "amazing" day.

"This was unreal - what a day, what a game," he added.

Jacqueline Burns from Cookstown also hailed the crowd's backing.

"It is unbelievable - to come away and see your team win is incredible," she said.

Northern Ireland now head to the French capital on Tuesday for a date with destiny with world champions Germany.

A draw could be enough to see them qualify for the next round.

But whatever Northern Ireland's footballers go on to achieve in this tournament, yesterday was a day to put everything in perspective.

Belfast Telegraph

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